To those who have read parts 1 to 3 I apologize for repetitions hereinafter; but I felt that some explanation is due to those who have not read them.
`RD' = `recycler-destructor and materials separator': it sorts and separates the component chemical elements of whatever is put in it.
`actinides' = elements 89 to 103, including uranium (92) and plutonium (94).
"Well, that was a lot of no good, except to give us a bad name and show all and sundry that hyperspace jumpers exist." said a space trading Company official after the abortive court case, "That fancy barrister with him who'd been in space with them, supporting their side and `lock-picking' through everything we do to keep them under control.".
Another said: "Likely he's saying `A lot of no good' also out there somewhere, coming here hoping to get everything settled right here and now and all our space financial policy `kicked into touch' so all that we end up with from all we've done in the asteroids is another empty dirty nest that young birds have flown from, like when Mars turned bad on us and went independent on us, and we had to leave them as soon as a few banana republics recognized them. Back to looking over our shoulders for workers' and customers' rights protection laws all the time. Back to having our agents who trade with free asteroid miners out there handcuffed and leg-fettered and ball-and-chained and gagged by pricing and trades descriptions laws etc etc till they can't move. Back to us being ditto when we try to act against free astro miners coming in with patent infringement kit on, so we can't recover costs by being the only supplier of necessary kit items. By now they can make every @#&% thing for themselves out there somewhere so they don't need to buy anything from us. And now they've got PL-props [= planet-landing spacesuit propulsors] which we intended for special forces only. And hyperspace jumpers that can fit on a man's spacesuit. So they'll be coming and going as they wish and taking what they want to. That's why I put a lot of my company's money into getting my home city a police VTOL jet fighter, at the end of a direct phone line sitting with a pilot in it and not through a lot of time-wasting air force official procedure: the only thing that's fast and well armed enough and fast enough response to routinely reach in time and destroy gangs of raiding PL-prop spacemen. I saw a video of one cleaning up a raiding teenage helirig gang once.".
"But it's hardly ever used, as taxpayers keep saying.".
"That's the idea. They know we've got it, so they leave us alone, or go away without landing when they see it on the ground, same as when scuba divers go to poach shellfish and see the local inshore fishermen's RD-equipped FSPB [= fast submersible armed patrol boat] in port. The lesson fades after a while, as lessons do, and some lot raids till a cop jet gets them. Thus they learn again that they aren't welcome there, and leave us alone for a good while after. If we didn't have one, they'd be down on us all the time taking stuff and illegal trading and evading customs like wasps in a jam factory. It's happened once already. They shot straight up to space, but the cop jet got there just in time and got them with a shrapnel missile fired straight upwards after them. Awful job afterwards it was finding and picking up all the bits of their dirty spacesuits' radioactive powerpacks. Some of the bits had maker's plates on them saying they were made at a place called Ilmenost, wherever that is.".
"I came across that name once. Two Company men on an inspection tour in issue long-trip suits: one of them's suit radio went wrong, so they had to talk on the distress frequency all the time. Then the other one's suit RD packed up, so they had to siamese. They were three weeks from anywhere official to get spares, and no idea what else might go wrong, so they had to use Company property valuable metal to buy two suits off some free asteroid miners they met, full of patent infringement items, and that name Ilmenost on many of them. They `got a rocket' for it, and for speaking badly of Company kit in public afterwards. OK, so some parts are designed only to last so long, so they must buy replacements: it's no good if they never need spend on anything. Then those miners find how to make suits that run for years without servicing, and make them for themselves out there somewhere and never mind that the Companies have already patented them. Wherever Ilmenost might be.".
"That's `Space Fort' or `Space Town' in those languages that Tolkien invented for his stories." said another, "Could be anywhere or nowhere. Somewhere in the asteroid belt, likeliest. All it tells is there's a Tolkien fan out there somewhere. I wonder how much else they've named in his languages or from his books. I wanted to get to know some of them that time at that meeting, but that silly attempt to seize their spacesuits while they were in the meeting, stampeded them, and likely they won't trust us again, and I got hyper jumped with them and stuffed into a pressure bag during the jump and left in orbit and had to be fetched down by a space shuttle. At least I can say I've been in space. There they are out there likely discovering things, while we're stuck with procedural difficulties and far too many officials to consult: comes from laws telling each firm to take on x percent more men merely to cut the unemployed list down. I wish I could round up all the officials and businessmen and put them into some sort of space-trooper kit and make them do the job themselves, with all available weapons, including PL-props and hyper jumpers and all despite the laws saying they're still top secret.".
"Those `PL-proppers' land and trade all over the place. Some say there's been high-level reactor waste going missing at atomic power stations, and talk of spacemen landing there. Likelier staff selling it on the side to them, than actual raiding. I don't like the idea of what they'd want that stuff for.".
"Not to threaten the world with radioactive dirt bombs. Give them some sense of decency. Never mind that thriller film `Terror of the Space Pirates'. Far likelier to RD it for hot radioisotopes to put in spacesuit powerpacks. All sorts of stuff turns up in them.".
"At least the Moon won't go independent: no water and no hydrogen to make water there. No big battle in Triesnecker crater securing their independence like in a fiction story I read once: Argyre on Mars was bad enough for me. Every drop of water's got to be carried in. No buried ice or gypsum strata like in some stories, to get water from. Expensive place to do anything, with that and its gravity well. The Moon can wait while we've got the asteroids. And another thing: those two suits' powerpacks: one had curium-245 in, the other had californium-249 in. At first I thought our radiochemist was joking. I couldn't believe it. We on earth hadn't seen a thousandth as much californium together. It's the sort of stuff we talk of by the milligram, and here was over a kilo of it. It's six up from uranium, takes a $%@ of a lot of neutrons to make it from uranium, and most of it fissions on the way up. It had some berkelium-249 in, so likely they made it the way we make it, but starting at what? If we'd been here when the Solar System was forming, we could have started half way at natural plutonium-244, whose half life is 81 million years, but it all decayed away ages ago. The longest half life beyond plutonium is curium-247 at 16 million years: I suppose if we got to a supernova site quick we could find some still about and make it into californium-249 so it'd decay quick enough to be a power source. But where would they get either? Is Ilmenost a place, or just a word they put on anything they make for themselves unauthorizedly anywhere out in the wilds?".
But Ilmenost was a definite place, in the asteroid belt of a star beyond the Pleiades, built by free asteroid miners as a safe base of their own away from companies. While testing their new hyperspace jumper the X-100 asteroid miner group discovered the star, and called it `Anor', which is a Tolkien word for the Sun, and its planets likewise, since some of them were Tolkien fans and had a set of CD-ROM's of his books. Ilmenost's inhabitants, travelling between places in long-trip spacesuits with propulsors in groups tethered to each other, or tethered to wherever they were working or resting (for things untethered in space always drift away), listened over their suit radios to the news of these and other events, next time a group hyper jumped in from the Solar System.
After listening to this familiar tedious talk of chronic dispute and stalling, as light relief they watched an Ilmenost-made cartoon called `Wild Goose Chase', one of the absurd adventures of "Jettie", a blundering Earth police jet fighter pilot who never quite succeeded when ordered to catch unauthorizedly landing PL-prop spacemen. He chased one lot but they got away, `skying' faster than was possible in reality. As the air got thinner as he rose after them, his jet started panting like a man with its `chest' heaving and complained "Are you trying to space me, or what? And I've missed the airshow for this: I was hoping to meet friends there. I want double time [= double my usual pay rate] for today, and a day off next week.". Later that day his jet's frustration boredom and his own empty freezer pushed the two to chase flights of wild geese, towing a fishing trawl in the air, which caused audience laughter. But he succeeded. His jet found it such fun that after landing and unloading it took off again by itself for another session, and he had to chase it with a backpack jetpack on. It caught the geese, but spacemen came and chased him, finding him for once outside his jet, which however arrived and for once caught them, in the net; but as he was happily anticipating a medal for the capture and a full freezer, the spacemen hyperspace jumped away taking the net and the geese, and that was the end of that. All so silly and somewhat childish, and with gear that would not have worked in reality; but behind it was the message not to expect indefinitely to be able to ignore ground authorities when landing.
Anor's system is roughly like the Sun's. Its planets, named by the X-100's after Tolkien's names for the Sun's planets, are: Narien, Elemmire, Earendil, Arda (which is Earthlike), Karnil, asteroids, Alkarinque, Lumbar, Luinil, Nenar. Narien means `Fire-land' and is like the supposed `Vulcan' that many looked for orbiting between Mercury and the Sun. Anor has no `Pluto'; the Tolkien equivalent name `Mandos' is given to a satellite of Nenar. Having by now set up their own complete industrial base there, the various asteroid miners and other long-trip-suited spacemen who had followed the X-100's to the Anor system were by now numerous enough to explore the area as well as making the means of defence if unwelcome outside authority tried to intrude. So it happened that two asteroid miner groups, the Jetters and the Quasars, loaded supplies into tow crates and tethered to each other and aimed themselves. Their suit propulsors gradually pushed them into an arc of a fast hyperbolic orbit towards one of the inner planets. Their suits' onboard mini RD's reduced all waste matter into separated chemical elements or simple inorganic compounds, which their onboard food synthesizers used to make a monotonous but nutritious liquid. Energy for all this came from their suits' nuclear powerpacks. Routine space travel had brought back one common fact of pre-industrial life, namely journeys that routinely lasted weeks. To pass the time on this journey they discussed the native life that had been found in the Anor system.
"Plenty on Arda." Jet Jack said, "Animals, some of them huge. Plants including dense forests; some dangerous like the bush that has natural landmines on its roots to keep browsing animals away. Some on Karnil in the tropical zone: it's got more air than Mars, just enough not to need a pressure suit to stop the body fluids from boiling at blood heat; but he still needs an oxygen breathing set, plus a long acclimatization before he can live on one Karnil-atmosphere pressure of oxygen. That's one of the `Karnil pleasures' of planet exploration, all that breathing not enough oxygen and waiting while the bone marrow learns to make enough extra red blood cells to cope. Too much biochemical difference from Earth life for us to eat any living matter from either planet, or for anything from either planet to eat the other's or Earth's. There must have been two separate starts to life out here. This causes the biological species classifiers problems: I don't know much about that sort of thing.".
"The biggest biological classification was the kingdom, such as the animal kingdom and the plant kingdom that you may have heard of." said Cobra, one of the Jetters, "I know a fair amount of biology, so I was asked to help sort it all out. I needed a word bigger than `kingdom' for all the life from one arising of life: so I call all Earth life the `empire' Gaeabiota, that's Greek for `Earth life'. So here we have the empires Ardabiota and Karnilbiota. I try to avoid name duplications; but between Earth and Anor system biological names it can't be helped, as there's so many Earth names; and all three empires have such obvious names as kingdoms called Animalia and Plantae. So the all too common landmine bush is empire Ardabiota, kingdom Plantae, phylum Florifera, order and class and family not decided till we've done a lot more work to sort all the new species out, genus and species Keraunorrhiza detonans, which means the exploding thunderbolt-root: @#% dangerous things. One thing's a bit wrong: life can evolve to live in all sorts of conditions, but it needs special conditions to start, and I and the astronomers agree: how ever did life manage to start on Karnil?, except perhaps in a few hot corners near volcanoes. Too cold and dry, and in the old days even colder, since Anor's got a bit hotter since then, as stars often do. But life's there, all over the tropical zone.".
"At least when the bush dies, its mines deactivate, and later safely rot away. Dangerous business trying to extract the explosive from them, it's been tried." said another, "As a matter of interest, in the proper Roman meanings Latin `detonare' doesn't mean `explode', but `for it to stop thundering', as in weather, and `explodere' means `to hiss a bad actor off the stage'. A lot of Latin and Greek words get used in unclassical meanings by scientists.".
Thus they discussed as Anor's spectrum class A white glare (unlike the Sun's G-class yellow) and their destination gradually got nearer. But anticipation of another hunt for biology specimens was in vain, for the planet that got steadily larger in front of them was not Earth-like Arda, or Karnil, but Earendil, hidden like Venus by a cloud cover. On Venus a host of theorized and fictional worlds and aliens from advanced technology to primaeval had been evaporated beyond recall by two Russian landing probe craft. He thought of what would happen if if something created such characters on the real Venus in its 90 Earth-atmospheres of carbon dioxide at 480 degrees C under a sky whose famous eternal cloud cover is made of sulphuric acid droplets. It was all too like descriptions of Hell and inappropriate for high mental images like the classical love goddess Venus and Tolkien's hardy sailor Earendil aroused by the white beauty of those clouds seen by astronomers from afar sunlit from above and the way the planet moved in Earth's sky. It was the same on Anor's planet Earendil. At the right time the spacemen ran their suit propulsors long and steadily to decelerate. They looked in passing at the airless cratered and ring-basin-marked surface of Earendil's moon Elwing, which unlike Earth's Moon rotated much faster than it orbited. They settled into a close orbit and decided who was to do what. Those chosen to land put on special pressure and corrosion and heat resisting oversuits, and descended. Some of them had been on Earendil before; but Plutey-pots had not, and he was apprehensive.
The descent party's `Earendil suits' had foldable aeroplane wings about 6 feet span. These saved much suit propulsor effort as the atmosphere got dense. Anor's white glare vanished behind the acid-fog clouds as they descended towards the lifeless hidden world of heat and pressure. In his hard oversuit, with the wings, and with his legs held straight out behind him by the oversuit's hip callipers to stop them from hanging down causing drag, Plutey-pots, who had once been Blore the City businessman, felt even more like he had been turned into an aeroplane rather than flying in one, as the formation of winged suited men came out of the cloud base and switched their oversuits' cooling systems on and saw at last below them the hidden surface of Earendil. Wing drag and outside temperature increased fast as the pressure and temperature rose exponentially as they descended and flew over desert plains and eroded hills and jagged fault block mountains and a patch of new-looking volcanoes, in dim light like a very overcast English winter day.
No sign of water erosion, nor was it expected, not even the once-a-century flash floods that wash away erosion debris in many Earth deserts. All this had been surveyed before, by radar from orbit by the X-100's, so their leaders knew the land layout. All was lifelessly hot, dull, and alien. It was easy to imagine the souls of the sinful dead being condemned to wander there forever on the hot sand and burning jagged rocks. Below them endless ranks of crescent-shaped barchan dunes marched forever across a 100-mile-wide sand-filled circular asteroid impact basin until they reached the jagged crest of the Ered Aragorn (`ered' = "mountains": the X-100's had stayed with their Tolkien for many Earendil land form names). As they swooped over bare highlands and high jagged peaks which no snow would ever lie on and no torrent ever rush down from beneath the endless dull cloud roof, Plutey-pots pointed at a high cliff with a winding valley at its bottom.
"That's a fresh landslide caused by undercutting by a river, or I've never seen one!" Tiger Tim, one of the Quasars, exclaimed, for he was a geologist.
As they flew lower, the excitement of undeniable paradox found turned flat as they saw that the river was not one of water. Very fluid lava flowing fast from a new vent on a mountainside had formed a bed and scoured away the fault scarp cliff's foot as well as any Earth river in sudden flood could have. But anyway they landed, running their suit propulsors higher as they turned feet down and folded their wings and unclipped their oversuit hip callipers and landed on a surface of sandblast-faceted stones on the surface of Earendil, even as space probes had once at last revealed to men the hidden surface of Venus. Heat constantly leaked in through their oversuits, whose bulky heat pump packs blew it out again as a blast of the planet's air heated even hotter than usual. "Now I've got a hot exhaust to wonder where it's going, blowing sand about or scorching someone's suit." he thought tiredly, looking about, feeling even further from home in that alien-looking kit in that alien hot place. He saw little that he understood in the various rocks shown on the high cliff, but others did.
"Lava and ash strata." said Tiger Tim, looking there also, "A basalt dike, and layers of sand that blew in. The only sedimentary stuff'll be aeolian [= made by wind]. A fair lot of uranium about, but there's plenty to be going at in the asteroids for now - what's that cross-bedded stuff? Looks like river delta silt rather than desert stuff, but what made it here? If I climb up here I can reach this layer of black stuff below it: someone come with me in case of anything. This stuff must be quite ancient, by the uranium / lead and plute-244 / xenon ratios that my [remote metal] analyzer shows.".
"Where does plute [= plutonium] come into it?" said Plutey-pots, "I know that Levitsky at that base thought it clever to give me a suit with oxy tanks made out of it, whence my new name; but why here?".
"There were a lot more supernovas a lot more recently around here than around the Sun, including some quite recent that gave the planets a fresh fallout cover with plenty of the middle actinides in, so there's still a lot of natural plute-244 and even some curium-247 about. Plute-244 won't chain fission, but some of it fissions slowly by itself, and makes xenon of such an isotope distribution at such a rate. But when the rock's melted the xenon boils away. So I can tell how long it was since this rock was melted last by how much xenon of that sort's in it, and that was a very long time ago.".
He and Plutey-pots climbed the fallen boulders, running their suit propulsors a bit to make them lighter in their heavy kit in the Earth-like gravity. They reached the black layer, which Tiger Tim then hammered at.
"Foliation:" said Tiger Tim, "schist, I suppose, odd it's so soft and looks so much like shale, but shale needs water to form - any other planet I'd've said it was shale with a lot of eroded-out mica scales in as pseudo schistosity - lets split some of its `pages' [= foliation layers] apart - Ye Gods! Look at this!".
They looked at the split pieces of rock. On the split surfaces were what could only be carbonized remains of seaweeds and odd-shaped sea animals, where it had for ages been far too hot for life. They realized what had happened. Once on that very spot, long ago, there were no death-clouds, but Anor's light reached the surface routinely, and the land and the air were cool enough for life, and water blown out by volcanoes condensed as rain, and ran down and formed seas. Life had started there, but as Anor's hydrogen fusion reactor core accumulated its helium ash and got hotter, so Earendil's tropical daytime temperature reached boiling point, and its oceans evaporated, and its carbonate rocks calcined and the released carbon dioxide made the greenhouse effect grow out of control, and life ended there when it was still at the level of the Earth late Precambrian Ediacara fauna. How long did life hang on in a few cold areas, evolving to withstand ever hotter water and air, until the end came? How narrowly did life stowing carbon and carbon dioxide away in the rocks win the race against ever increasing sun heat to stop Arda's greenhouse effect from running away likewise? And on Earth? But on Earendil, as on Venus, the race was lost, and as the last heat-resistant spore and egg perished ages ago in the ever-growing heat after long hopeless dormant waiting beneath the death-shroud of perpetual acid cloud, native life died without progeny, and of the biological `empire' Earendilbiota the end of the story had been written long ages ago.
The place needed a name. They ignored the X-100s' pervasive Tolkien theme and named it Burgess Cliff, after the similar Burgess Shale in Canada on Earth. They collected as much weight of specimens as they could easily carry, recorded the area with various instruments, and left. A wide empty desert plain which had once been an ocean bed dropped below them and disappeared as they reached the cloud layer, which they thankfully rose through, away from the hot dimness back to space and the white light of Anor shining on the white sea of cloud top. As the air got too thin to carry their oversuit wings, they turned heads up and `skyed' back to orbit. They wore their oversuits for long enough for the acid from the clouds to space-dry off, then took them off and put them away. After the usual several weeks' journey back, they arrived in Ilmenost: most of those that welcomed them were interested in their tales of such a risky place than of a few ancient fossils. They took their finds to a palaeontology lab, where they were examined. Ilmenostian biologists drew and named and listed the species found, and defined empire Earendilbiota with its kingdoms Animalia and Plantae, classes, orders, families, and arranged the species as they could, and regretted the so early ending of a world of life.
Or had it ended? Scientists found a few remaining biochemicals in the shale samples. They did not fit Ardan or Earth biochemistry well, but those who studied the chemistry of the life that clung to Karnil's cold tropical zone in its thin air recorded with amazement a good fit. Did a long-ago asteroid impact on Earendil throw hardy spores of its life into space, an evacuation from coming disaster just in time? Long they likely circled Anor in the lifeless void, a distance and time far longer than any ordinary crossing between continents on a planet, until some managed a soft landing on Karnil, perhaps in a hot volcanic area, and, already able to grow in adverse conditions, grew on and evolved again and diversified there where some said life could not have likely arisen of itself. Were the Earendilbiota still living, on Karnil? Did the Karnilbiota arise not locally but from a few hardy organisms cast across space long before from a doomed life-world? It was hard to imagine the ancestors of such plants as the familiar prospector's guide plant, Karnil pluteweed, Plutophila diacrophylla which hoards salts of the poisonous metal in its long fork-pointed leaves to defend itself against grazing and insects in the hardships of cold and thin air, growing in the hot dimly-lit hell of Earendil beyond 200 million miles of space, but it seemed so.
In the Sun's system less was being achieved. Asteroid mining work managed to live with the usual wariness and suspicion between miners and the base staff. Long range radio attempts to organise talks about talks went on intermittently, and both sides brought up the usual accusations. On Earth, enthusiasts of real and fictional space travel as well as some coal etc miners' organizations and public media pressure groups protested and demonstrated loudly about what was going on, and more than once burst into Company board meetings to make their views known. Company men who `didn't like what was going on' turned public evidence. Revelations about what had been going on at a base called Fletchmin-1 near Vesta wiped out the value of Fletcher Mining shares, and some other shares. Some companies tried to salvage matters by issuing more shares, but few people bought them. Investors got scared. More efficient ways of recovering metals from old dumped rubbish back on Earth and from dispersion in the environment had been steadily eating into the need to mine many metals off-world, except as needed for use in space to avoid having to bring it out of Earth's gravity well. Fletcher Mining and Milford Metals Brokers went into liquidation, and their fall echoed about.
The recent disappearance of Mr.Fletcher and Mr.Milford and others had already disarranged matters and caused suspicions. An agent who was trying to tie too much together at once to salvage asteroid metal trading matters went into nervous breakdown in the middle of a speech by him in public at a trade fair and loudly accused all present of being disguised space-alien spies sent by supposed aliens who were supplying unauthorized types of kit to the asteroid miners to sabotage Earth business and economy; this disrupted yet more business. Company secret policy documents missing from Fletchmin-1 and elsewhere turned up, much photocopied, on Mars, and were published on Earth before legal injunctions could be served. In space and in business, life tried to carry on. To try to save at least a bit of market, some Companies broke their long-standing policy rule and turned, too late, to themselves selling to all and sundry long-lasting spacesuits and parts; but it availed little.
Some of the remoter Company asteroid bases were abandoned, including the base where Levitsky the storeman had turned Blore the businessman into Plutey-pots the asteroid miner; it was never repaired and re-manned after the attack by the rogue Fletchmin guards, and Levitsky became and remained Leo of the Jetters, free spaceman. Other bases fell empty except for a few emergency staff ordered to evacuate or provide essential services for asteroid miners and other spacemen who had been relying on those bases. At one base even those few staff left at once and willingly when the Sardies arrived and manned the base, with a supply of good Ilmenost-made spacesuits that worked for years without need to visit a base; arriving miners eagerly put them on instead of the authorized types that needed servicing or parts replacing too often; and that was not the only base where the staff made such arrangements so they could get home sooner. Perhaps the company would reclaim the base later; but in the meantime Company rules about spacesuits and such were dead, and remained dead, for on Earth the new general atmosphere of enquiry and calling to account showed that the relevant patents had run out and the Company claims to have renewed them were not legally enforceable, and the Company and government space interests' will to enforce rule and be a power bloc finally wavered and collapsed.
The matter ran to its end, and the remaining Companies ran out of excuses to postpone or adjourn, and there met the often staved off but now inevitable final meeting to decide all related disputes and try or drop all relevant law cases. After all that had happened it was an anticlimax, as such things often are; much of what happened was a massive job of writing-off debts and investments and dropping accusations and claims and winding-up business and financial affairs, like a multiple exchange of pieces that finally clears the board and the air in a locked-up tense chess game. There was one request to hand over suits and hyper jumpers, but it came not from any seizing authority's warrant but from some astronomers who had got wind of the meeting and turned up, seeking the means of seeing remote stars from close up. That intrusion of the irrelevant and merely scientific was as good as anything else at creating a climate of realizing that the old times were gone. The spacemen PL-propped or hyper jumped back to their routines. The remaining Companies patched up their affairs as they could, or sought business elsewhere, and some went into liquidation. Life went on.
With PL-props in common possession the companies no longer had the monopoly on transport to and from planets. Spacemen could take deceased effects to relatives and send money sent by the living to people on planets, and bypass the company controlled mail whose security equipment was all too good at detecting contained valuables if the sender or addressee allegedly owed money. The old rule was that asteroid miners were to do all trading in Company credits and an account in the company bank and were not allowed to possess convertible currencies or valuable metals in space (except for components of work kit, and what they mined and was in immediate transit to the nearest Company collection base); but it had long been a dead letter.
Nor were the remaining Companies' attempts to patch up their affairs helped by an Earth TV station that ran `Jettie' cartoons once a week, and made no secret of that some men from space had sold them the tapes of it. Children loved it, but business didn't care much for the undisguised display of the free spacemen's idea of what the Companies were like, and again wondered where Ilmenost was, seeing the name in end credits and elsewhere; much replaying of videorecorded copies revealed nothing that might help anyone who may want to find or attack the place.
And again came the chronic legal aggro about the territorial status of space: if the asteroid miners wanted to appeal to Earth law re price descriptions etc, which nation's law?, thousands of Earth-diameters away. And if space was a separate nation, with the directors of the Companies as its government, then the asteroid miners and other space workmen hereby demanded democratic elections like in most other modern nations: as a body of men gets bigger and more spread out, it by degrees turns from a commanded force into a population. But distance and emptiness made communication between far outposts and Earth far too slow for a single central democracy to run efficiently, far more so even than in Russia on Earth which many said would have to go federal like the USA in the end.
So a new period started. The Jetters flew down out of space to an atomic test site in Nevada: they were expected, and the visit was routine although not made public. A minor-sounding remark during chatter while waiting for an automated process to finish, showed something that would alarm the free spacemen somewhat.
"Odd: the last year or two we've had this stuff spreading all over the test area, with the big staring dayglo orange flowers." said one of the men in charge of the test site, "Nothing'll eat it, not even the jackrabbits, and when it dies it doesn't rot away properly. None of the botanists can find what it is. A biologist says its biochemistry's weird, like nothing he's seen before, and it accumulates plutonium, which gets into the soil on some atom bomb test sites. We call it `atom weed', it only seems to want to grow on the test site.".
Jet Jack recognized it right enough. "Holy &%$, it's pluteweed, `Seaborgia plutoniophila', all the way from Arda, here on Earth." he thought with a shock of unreality at seeing it there, "`The empire strikes back', it seems: at least the [biological] `empire' Ardabiota. How long before they get ideas that free spacemen have found a planet with alien life on, and send a force to try to take over? All the fiction and schizophrenics' talk and so on of alien takeovers, the overpowering presence of a technology beyond our grasp coming from the sky, and what alien invasion what do we get in reality? Some garish-flowered weed from seeds on or in someone's dirty spacesuit or work tools. Where there's pluteweed on Arda, there'll be plutonium in the rocks there or upstream. Always isotope 244. Like the Earth plant called leadwort that grows on outcrops of lead ore, and the way English wild orchids self-seed and grow on some chemical waste tips. Like that time Protak Pete in the X-100's got interested in butterflies splattered on one of his men's suits after they'd `skyed' quickly on Arda when dangerous animals turned up: `Our mighty tough leader gone silly after aw!-how-pretty little butterflies.' some teased him, until he had to remind them that `Those two three-coloured ones are Spanish Flag Butterflies, and where they are there's usually pluteweed for their caterpillars to eat, and where there's pluteweed there's plute.'.".
"I went to Novaya Zemlya island off the north coast of Siberia recently: the Russians wanted to see if I could help tidy up there. Six tons of plutonium-239 dispersed in the soil there from all those dirty atom bomb tests in Soviet times. I remember now, there was something like that growing there. Just like these, but the leaves were smaller. One of the Russians with me called them `noviye tsvety', that's `new flowers'. I don't know much about botany myself. The biologists and biochemists are having a field day, all sorts of ideas about how this `atom weed' could've arisen from ordinary plants.".
"Oh no." Jet Jack thought, "There also. That'll likely be Seaborgia arctica. I've told our people about keeping their kit free of seeds when they leave Arda or Karnil or Earth. All we now need is Karnil pluteweed here also.".
"And a funny new sort of three-coloured butterfly around them.".
Jet Jack recognized the description, as Trichromis seaborgiae, the Ardan Spanish Flag Butterfly. Its caterpillars are even more poisonous, from the plutonium they eat with the plant's leaves. Its eggs blow about along with the plant's seeds. Someone likely got both on his spacesuit while prospecting for actinides on Arda, then hyper jumped to Earth. There some Russians paid them to clean up a nuclear area because with their suits' life support systems they didn't need as much supplies bringing in across all that cold distance, and with their suits on they didn't need beds to sleep in, and they were better protected against radiation, and they would likely go right away at once afterwards and not chatter to Earth public media about things there.
"I wonder what's so special about plutonium, that it's so poisonous anyway. Apart from it being radioactive.".
"If you know much about the chemical periodic table," said Jet Jack, "when the actinides start, they act like eka transition metals, thorium like hafnium, etc, as if the lanthanide deviation was a one-off. Then lanthanide-ishness starts to show itself, and plute doesn't know whether it's eka-osmium or an eka lanthanide or something between, so it's forever changing valency, and when it gets loose among biological molecules it passes electrons about and makes molecules alter at such a rate that it's a menace. Several ordinary heavy metals do the same sort of thing. Perhaps this funny weed's mutated to tuck an atom of plute away in a enzyme so only the right molecules can get reacted by it. That way, some heavy metals are useful: f'r example people need a tiny bit of molybdenum to go in some enzyme or another. And there's 6 ways plute as a metal can crystallize. After plute the actinides get more like plain eka lanthanides.".
"Sanskrit for `one'. Chemists used to say `eka-X' for something like element X but a row further down in the periodic table, back last century when they were sorting the elements they'd found so far to find where they were missing some. `Dva-' means `same but two down'. This dropped out when they'd found all the missing elements up to uranium and given them proper names. But some people are using the word again, with all this looking for superheavy elements and so on.".
By now the automated process had finished; they got back to work, and finished it, and went back to space. Jet Jack remembered one of the many strange ideas said by a schizophrenic who had found his way to the Anor system, imagining that his head voice was divine instructions to start an isolationist monastic order called the `Faithful Brethren'. This flourished on a remote asteroid until the X-100's in a police-type `PSC-4' spacecraft cleaned them out, for many of the order's members were being held there against their will or by deception, and they were not contributing to the defence effort in case Earth authority tried to take over. That `prophesy' was "Fate will come, and its wings will be those of a butterfly.". "So it seems, likely." Jet Jack thought irritatedly, "That plant's funny biochemistry by itself might be an Earth plant with mutations caused by radiation; but those butterflies also with the same biochemical oddities would be far too much coincidence to be anything except alien life forms, and they'll know we've found somewhere else with life on, and they may decide to send a takeover force there. Most of them still think so far that Ilmenost's on some one of the Sun's asteroids if it's anywhere definite at all. All it'll need is for a set of photos of the Arda sky star patterns to find its way back to them. They'll find from them roughly where we are compared to the Pleiades and Aldebaran. Then they do what the X-100's did before: they jump about the area taking star pattern photos, and use a computer to make them into an accurate 3D star map of the area. Then they work out what the sky star pattern'd be from all likely stars till they find one that fits the Arda sky.".
News that Ilmenost and the Anor system existed, and roughly where it was, inevitably filtered back to Earth, and caused reactions varying from sensational headlines to feelings of inevitability, to messianic hopes or fears that much foretold in science fiction would now come to pass, to official blaming and search for who was responsible, as what was left of the business and government space control system tried to re-form itself. Accusations flew about.
Officials and MP's etc accused each other about someone's clever idea for a `Project Sardaukar', codenamed after something in the science fiction `Dune' series. It was a hard-squad of Company enforcers bred by cloning from a hard thug who seemed good starting stock and XYY-ifying the cell clone line. They were given them the best training and kit and the first hyperspace jumper let away from the secret labs. But within a fortnight the `Sardies', as they changed their name to, had cut loose and become free asteroid miners themselves and let their hyper jumper be examined and copied in an unauthorized workshop on a remote asteroid. Thus free asteroid miners found Anor first and named many places there after "Tolkien and asteroid miner nicknames, not properly after reputable Government and business people, and with the kit they've got if we do try to restore proper order there we'll have an endless guerilla war on our hands, much worse than Mars was.".
They blamed and accused each other about endless bureaucratic and financing delays so "they've got the PL-prop and the PSC-4 and much else finished and in production and use some time ago, while here they'll be on the drawing board for some time yet. Likely we'll end up buying such kit and craft in from them, when we need them, same as nearly every motorcycle in England comes from Japan, and that'll mean recognizing them as independent. Once we had a proper army to keep roughs and natives under control. A shock in that Central American republic in that film when the army got sick of officials doing nothing but argue over things and wanting forms filling, so an Army squad took over the offices and gave the officials and clerks an AK47 each and sent them to the front as they were. What purpose is our endless meetings about who out of doctors and police and such emergency personnel are to be able to apply for a licence for a PL-prop, when and if we finally start making them, when soon every asteroid miner'll likely have one? At least we can `spy out the land' over there a bit. Instead of a working police craft to catch a bunch of them and force the coordinates of that place of theirs from them, I'm reduced to scruffy little sending spies and the risk of them going over to the enemy like the Sardies.".
The first man they sent as an agent was a Company atomic scientist, as the best to tell what in the nuclear line was going on there and what the risk of atom bombs was in case of conflict with them. He went as an asteroid miner, choosing a suitably rough-sounding codename for himself, `Nuke Nick', which he painted on his helmet forehead. After a while at unremarkable manual labour with a group that he joined, he had the luck to be hyper jumped to the Anor system with his group, for most Ilmenostian groups showed themselves from time at time at Solar System asteroid bases, to avoid Earth authorities either guessing or getting alarmed by more and more groups apparently disappearing without trace. As the hyper jump field cleared he saw with wonderment for the first time an alien star system, and marvelled at the size of the installations build there so far from the Sun by men with no Company or government backup. On Arda he saw growing in nature the dayglo orange flowered alien weed which he had so far only seen in television news. He recorded what he felt he needed to, went to Ilmenostian scientific meetings when he could, and took a chance to return to the Solar System, thinking that among so many one more coming and going would go unnoticed. But his group kept a close watch on each other, and at his first attempt to slip away he was chased and caught, and warned about the risks of getting lost if he went off on his own. At the next base call he finally managed to plead an invented sick relative and get to back to Earth. He got to his office, toughened and weary after much miner's work, mind dizzy from so many new things seen, and printed out the computer floppies that he had brought back.
"`Some first-rate scientific talent over there, not just workmen making plain uranium reactors from information in books.'" his boss, Mr.Jameson, read from his report, "A bunch of scientific papers, all that's lost on me, I've told you before, I'm an administrator, not a scientist, cut the jargon and the equations out ... lets read this one a bit - `Techniques in designing and operating Cm247 reactors, by `Control Rod' (X-100's)' - even in scientific articles those nicknames of theirs! - `neutron budget ... maximizing Cf249 production from the proportion of Cm247 that reacts (n,gamma) instead of fissioning ... Cf249 makes an average of 4 neutrons when it fissions ... minimizing the capture cross section and integral-amount-d-time-exposed of Bk249 to avoid as far as possible the neutron-wasting side reaction Bk249 (n,gamma) Bk250, unless transcalifornium elements are needed for research ... a much more serious problem than avoiding Np239 (n,gamma) Np240 when breeding U238 to Pu239, and Am245 (n,gamma) Am246 when breeding Pu244 to Cm245 ... best timing in taking the fuel elements out ...' - `they commonly refer to Bk and Cf as `berk' and `cally' ... with natural Cm247 fairly abundant those high actinides are routine practical stuff to them' ... `Relevant half lives: Cm247 alpha 16e6 yr;' - that funny computerese way of writing `times 10 to the power of', lucky I did a computer course once - `Cm248 alpha 350,000 yr; Cm249 beta 65 min; Bk249 beta 0.88 yr; Cf249 alpha 900 yr;' -
And so on. You're the berk, where's the proper information? How many men've they got, and how armed and equipped? What radar etc have they got? What is the layout and whereabouts of this place Ilmenost and of their other bases over there? What patrols do they mount? How for a snatch force to get hold of one of their PSC-4's or the plans for them?, so we can make our own at last. Were any of those scientists the three Company scientists that went over to the free miners because they `didn't like what was going on'? As I should have expected: you stopped being a Company undercover agent and let science take over, treated that lot as scientific colleagues which you wouldn't dream of putting at risk. What's this other paper about? Some place called Nunarien: ye gods the dirty thing, lucky we haven't got them here now. This lot isn't much use either: a lot of chitchat and gossip column stuff: when it is best to put young children into their first spacesuit (oh crumbs are they trying to raise children in space!), `odd legends about the group called the F-15's, says they're all Earth businessmen who'd gone to space, but when I asked a few of them they all said they'd all been workmen before they went to space...', and so on - I suppose like the story going about space that somewhere there's an asteroid miner with oxygen cylinders made of plutonium who will do all sorts of heroic things, yekh the idea of it, all sorts of stories about him: etc etc, never mind.".
"The leader of the F-15's has, or so they said: he's called `Hot-pots'. That man of theirs that decides disputes in llmenost, that they call the Arbiter, he's gone two better: his oxygen cylinders are made out of curium-247. Sometimes I think they get a kick out of having kit items made out of actinides.".
"OK, not only they do that sort of thing if allowed. On Earth in an atomic lab somewhere a few years ago I saw a plutonium statuette of that G.T.Seaborg who was one of the team that first made plutonium back in 1941. Lax supervision and a bored radiochemist, I suppose. Some people's fancies. I know asteroid miners: a thoroughly wild lot. I see you brought your spacesuit back with an Ilmenostian PL-prop on instead of the old-style propulsor that we supplied it to you with. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it Superman? No, it's our man coming back with an unauthorized suit kit part and a pair of those clip-on aeroplane wings on, landing in our office car park without going through immigration as if he was a special forces man. So much for that rule yet again. You may as well go back to your ordinary work, and wait for the first banana republic to recognise them as independent, like with Mars." his boss said, tiredly accepting the inevitable.
"That big front gun on the PSC-4 that shoots out from a magazine a lot of little missile-shaped craft each driven by one of its crew: you wouldn't believe what they call it: 'sewage pump'!".
"All right, I know of the free asteroid miners' habit of calling themselves `space sewage and we intend to stay so, as you can tell by the smell when we unsuit: shows we're not some base-bound bunch that can unsuit every night.', when they pride themselves on being rough and unprincipled.".
So the F-15's met Earth again, too late to return to their former lives as Earth businessmen. They had been delegates at a crucial Company cartel meeting in a time of virtual war between asteroid spacemen wanting freedom and asteroid metals trading companies wanting control. Spacemen got wind of the meeting and hyper jump snatched them out, disrupting dangerous concerted Company plans against free spacemen which would have secured control of all supplies and got various efficient space police craft into use much sooner than was actually done. Life far from Earth and Sun, and other things (for among the free spacemen moral scruples had come second to self-preservation), had consumed all the F-15s' memories of their previous life.
Wise after the event re scientists, Mr.Jameson sent a Company agent, with no science qualifications above A-level and so less likely to be distracted by scientificness. The agent had had a good pass in A-level biology, and so decided to go under cover as a biologist, thinking that his school's A-level curriculum plus much eager viewing of wildlife TV programmes and reading of wildlife books was all there was to know about biology and certainly enough for what he was likely to meet among a lot of space-workmen and atom men living in space. He chose a name (`Eland', chosen at hurried random from African big game) and a cover life story, joined a group of asteroid miners, and again was lucky and got to Ilmenost soon. When meetings there turned to science, the atom and spacesuit kit talk soon got `above his head', but he had not claimed to be an expert in them; he stayed on the sidelines and listened, until once when discussion turned to Arda wildlife. Memories of TV wildlife programs gave him the means to ask what to him were learned-sounding questions, and skill at business speeches and sales patter helped him to dodge awkward moments. His mission seemed to be progressing well.
"What is your opinion on the implications of differences in ontogeny of the Earth and the Ardan vertebrate skull?" Cobra of the Jetters asked at one meeting where the participants met in a bunch all linked by intercom wires and tethered to the outside of a structure as the sky of alien constellations rotated slowly around them. Cobra was a biologist, largely self-taught during weeks-long suit propulsor flights across empty space between work sites with nothing to see but each other and the unchanging stars. Supply of interesting CD-ROM's and suchlike to avoid sensory deprivation psychosis during such journeys is important for long-trip spacemen, and with the need for practical skills the CD-ROM makers had a bias towards science and the like rather than literature and fiction.
The result was disastrous. Among a welter of unknown words one word stood out, or he thought it did: `oncology', the study of cancer, a word he had learned in an anxious time in a hospital when an aunt of his had breast cancer. That and `skull': he shuffled floppies in his spacesuit outside pack to gain time while with the speed of much practise a speech quickly formed itself in his brain.
"The fight against cancer." he started, "Particularly cruel when it starts in the bone of the skull and endangers at once the brain and the facial appearance, but harmful wherever it occurs, a killer of loved ones ... we need to combat this enemy ... forward to the fight, forward to the future! ... ", and so on, he went on until the chairman, Protak Pete in the X-100's, stopped him.
"We've got enough treatment for cancer sufferers: we're not talking about it now." said Cobra, "Anyway, in all that there was zero about the biology of cancer. We didn't come here to have our time wasted by what is obviously a businessman's or fund-raiser's promotion speech. Who and what are you?".
"But you did say `cancer': OK, you actually said `oncology', I know the word.".
"I said `ontogeny'. OK, so you misheard. If you know nothing about cancer, you should have said so directly. We accept that one man can't know all things.", and then to Protak Pete: "I move that we remove that irrelevant stuff from the record and him from this meeting, and find who he really is and what his real qualifications are.".
The agent fled abruptly, fearing a body search and discovery of his Company ID in an undersuit pocket. He attached himself to a group which from their talk seemed to be going onto Arda to explore something whose name meant nothing to him except that it was "yet another Tolkien name that those X-100's used so many of". Then the Jetters joined the party. He saw the name `Plutey-pots' on a helmet forehead and realized that a particular space legend was likely true after all. He stayed aside during the collecting and storing of kit, and set off with the rest. On the way a companion described where they were going; he didn't care much for the idea of it, but he dare not attract attention to himself.
Everything went grey around him: he had not expected to be hyper jumped again so soon. The grey cleared to show that they were now orbiting an Earth-like planet with most of its land area in one big continent stretching from pole to pole. They passed round pairs of aeroplane wings about 6 feet span, which they clipped onto their suits' oxygen cylinder mountings. As they flew down, the black sky of space turned into dark blue with a ring of pale blue round the edge of the planet which rapidly turned from an object in space into a ground below them. They flew east high above wild forested lands, then a huge inland desert which ended in a high range of snow-capped mountains, after which the land was forested again. In wonder at the alien world below him, Eland nearly forgot his mission.
They came to a plain between mountains, forested, and drained by a river. Its name was ominous, ever since the X-100's found it from instrument readings when first surveying Arda from orbit. `Thuringurth' the X-100's had called the river, `Secret Death', but from not any hazard of wildlife or white water. They flew steadily northeastwards over a sea of treetops, high enough to avoid the worst of the insects that splattered on their suits and kit; below them they heard animals chattering and squawking and roaring at each other, for their suit propulsors ran silently. Sometimes they passed a place where several young trees strove for light where a huge old tree had died or fallen. Isolated mountains stood in the plain, and more ahead as they flew up a side valley whose name was dread and whose water was dire. Thus Plutey-pots and Eland for the first time saw the Nunorduin, which no fish swam in and no beast would drink.
Black crags round its valley's mouth threw the wind into sudden eddies, which caught Plutey-pots and Red Dog and threw them into a spinning fall. Red Dog got out of it routinely, but Plutey-pots only after much frantic radioing of instructions. "Why did I ever leave my business office? Why did I ever end up `turned into an aeroplane' in a propulsor spacesuit with my hips and knees callipered straight to be its tail, instead of a comfortable seat in an airliner?" Plutey-pots thought in a brief reversal to the businessman Blore as his suit's clip-on aeroplane wings threw him this way and that and the forested rocks got ever nearer. In the end he pulled out of it and followed the rest, up the tributary which local wildlife shunned, having thus escaped in his first scrape with what many called ominously `The Thuringurth's Base-guards' - what was being guarded?.
The further up the side valley, the scantier the vegetation on its banks, far more so than would be from mere altitude and steepness. The Jetters and the others flew on up the river as its valley became ever steeper and narrower as the valley-forests of Nan Thuringurth changed into a highland, covered in `cloud forest' (that gets much of its water from mountain mist), except in one place.
There underground near the cliff edge was something that elsewhere would have been thought a dirty act by industrial Man against Nature, but here had been done by Nature herself, something that She had not done on Earth for 2,000,000,000 years. Plutey-pots remembered the Republic of Gabon (in West Africa) placename Oklo, and a drawing of Mother Nature as a radioactive area worker. That was safely long before life came onto land; but on Arda fallout from several recent nearby supernovas had brought that condition back, and more so, and groundwater had concentrated original and fallout uranium into one area near the cliff edge. "There's the place." Jet Jack said, not speaking its name. `Nunarien' the X-100's had named it when their instruments found it from a survey orbit, meaning "Place of Secret Fire" in Tolkien's languages, for they were ever fond of his books, and their names were used by many after them who found inventing enough place names to be difficult.
One look at the scanty vegetation, the garish-flowered patches of pluteweed (Seaborgia spp.), and the fluttering Spanish Flag Butterflies whose grubs ate its leaves, and the scrub of only radioactivity-tolerant species of plants, and the hot lifeless river headwater stream coming from the foot of the high cliff, was enough to show what had happened. Natural nuclear reactor. At Oklo, long ago when Earth natural uranium had enough U-235 in to fission with natural water as moderator (to slow the neutrons so the uranium can catch them easily), there were six of them; here was one, but a big one. In the plateau edge uranium fissioned and some became plutonium-239, without containment of any sort, cooled and moderated by ground water which flowed through the radioactive stuff and then out of the cliff to form the poisoned river. The cliff was sheer, and the only foot-way up it anywhere near was a fearsome climb up radioactive rock, in some wind directions passing through the steam of the dreaded outflow. The X-100's called that path Kirith Ungol, again from Tolkien: but it led past the den of a fear which could not have been slain with sword or energy beam like the huge ancient giant spider of Tolkien's Kirith Ungol was. Plutey-pots and many of the others shuddered, not at the reactor but at the use made of it, not by criminal or terrorist or mad scientist who could caught and shot but by blind natural forces which never feared to attack again after defeats and could not be brought to court. Strange to think that the menace came from familiar uranium and not from the alien plutonium-244 and curium-247 well known on Arda and elsewhere in its star Anor's system but dug in no mine on Earth.
Cobra noticed that the pluteweed there was different enough in leaf and growth to be a separate species much more radiation tolerant than other species, faced with Pu-239, which is much more radioactive than the usual Ardan Pu-244, to make itself poisonous with to defend itself from grazing: he named it `Seaborgia nunariendea', and collected samples. Others who were not botanists told him sharply to get back to the point of their visit and to put that `useless boxful of medium level nuke waste' back where he found it, but after an argument botany was respected. Trust Cobra's botany to get the better of him yet again even in a place like that. Thus Eland saw that Cobra was with them; and Cobra noticed him.
Eland realized that the enemy that he had brought on himself had come with him. His panic exit at the biology meeting was final proof that he had something to hide. Perhaps he could slip away flying among the rocks and trees and side gorges downstream, and away, for while on the ground they were not tethered, for the tethers would snag on things. But what to do then? No point wandering on Arda until something in his suit went wrong, for except for buying a PL-prop in Ilmenost his spacesuit was Company standard issue and certain parts would in due time need replacing. He could not eat the planet's wild food. He had no handyman's skill to make weapons or tools or suit parts. He was a business agent and no workman. No point holing up in this accursed radioactive place so many light years from base and backup. He still did not know what a spacesuit hyperspace jumper looked like among the variety of mechanics on a long-trip spacesuit, or how to get hold of one, or how to steer one to a desired place, or which star would be the Sun if he did manage to get back on the home side of the Pleiades. At least at night the Pleiades on Arda would give plenty light to see by at night, for Anor is much nearer to them than the Sun is. No point flying up and away to space: their suit radars would soon see him, and even if he had the fastest propulsor there they could hyper jump after him. He could `take care of himself physically' fairly well; but no point getting into a savage up-and-down fight with them on the steep slopes, trampling the pluteweed and the rad-scrub and likely finish falling with his suit open in the lethal pool of reactor water at the cliff base which was the source of the poisoned Nunorduin river.
Their visit was part of a long controversy in Ilmenost and elsewhere whether to treat Nunarien as part of nature and the environment to be left alone as a special hostile habitat like deserts etc, or as a polluter and a waste of useful actinides to be put a stop to, and if the latter, how? Nunarien had run for nearly fifteen thousand years as ground water brought in more uranium from the plateau behind, and a recent geological survey of the area had shown the sites of at least four other such reactors now thankfully burnt-out and dead. Sediment in the Nan Thuringurth valley plain had layers laden with by now mostly harmless decay products of uranium reactor outwash, and enough fossils to show that local life had survived the crises. Oklo on Earth had produced about 10,000 watts equivalent of heat for about a million years. How to stop such a thing, anyway?
Dig all round it and put a containment round it?: that would be a massive job; but if the containment was adequately heat insulating, the hot outflow water could make power like in any other reactor, including power to pump the exit water back up to the input, and the names of dread given to two of the valley's rivers would thankfully lose their purpose. And catch the still-flowing natural ground water to extract the uranium that it carried, or another natural reactor might develop beside the old one. Such a massive job would need far more heavy equipment than could be easily got there from the asteroids down Arda's gravity well; the equipment would have to be made on planet. The beginnings of an on-planet industrial area had been built on Arda, in an area of open low scrub rather than damage high forest to make room for it, and following the X-100s' persistent Tolkien theme it was named `Aulien', and a few railways were starting to spread out from it; but Nunarien amid a tangle of forested mountains and steep gorges was abominably hard to reach by land, or to build an overland route to; and such an effort would need far more men than Ilmenost had at call then.
Use the inevitable exploratory drill borings to blow it (probably with nukes to get enough blast power) to pieces too small to go critical again?: The idea of blowing up a working reactor made him shudder, for he didn't like seeing good machinery destroyed, nor the likely resulting contamination; but Nunarien was a different and alien thing whose like had not been seen on Earth since the middle Precambrian when Earth's atmosphere still had next to no oxygen, and anyway it was steadily outputting pollution of the must fearsome type already. Presumably the debris could then be processed like in any ordinary actinide mine; but its output, unless used on Arda, would have to be lifted out of Arda's gravity well, and there were plenty actinides in Anor's asteroids.
In earlier years the Companies' enforcers had been all too good at putting out of action unauthorized settlements' reactors when trying to maintain Company authority on Mars, until the Mars War of Independence stopped that and made the Companies shudder at the name of the Argyre basin: Jet Jack wished he could get hold of a squad of them and force them to try their harmful authoritarian skill on Nunarien.
Pour some dissolved boron compound into the drill holes or the incoming ground water?: where to get all that boron from?; and over time it would leach out and the reaction would restart, unless Nature stopped what she started, and changed the groundwater drainage which collected the uranium.
Thus they debated, and reported back to Ilmenost, for they had men and kit only for exploring and surveying. Life went on, and the feared flowers and insects of Reactor Gully and the deep river gorge downstream were not disturbed immediately except by a few biologists. If men begin to remove or deactivate Nunarien, say by gradually mining it away, that is in the future as yet.
Eland had to stay with the Jetters and await a chance to get back to Earth, for he was stranded far from home. Six weeks later at a badly-needed chance to take his spacesuit off, while he was getting used for the first time to the foul wave of undersuit smell which is the symbol of long-trip asteroid miners, his Company ID slipped out of an undersuit pocket, and Red Dog (Jetters) grabbed it first. The secret was out, and the Jetters were not gentle finding the rest of the truth from him. They removed his suit's tether release lever to prevent him from deserting; he hoped ever more remotely for a chance to get back to the Solar System and home.
Even so and similarly Earth and Ilmenost gradually each knew what the other knew about them even as they learned about each other, and no chance for surprise developed. And as expected an assortment of Earth's lesser nations recognized Ilmenost as independent even before Ilmenost had expressed any wish to be so recognized. And yet again various men dratted all banana republics and said that the world would have been far better if (1) the national empires in Africa and Asia had been held together, (2) Central America had broken away from Spain as USA-like states of a single large orderly extended federal Mexico instead of as a lot of separate bits and pieces, (3) similarly the smaller and more purposeless South American odds and ends. But that had not happened, any more than any other feared or longed-for alternative outcome of history, and there was little left for Earth officialdom to do except argue about blame.
Earth, officialdom and general population, had learned about the Anor system not as a sudden sensation but gradually. The first hyperspace jump seen by Earth public as the spacemen escaped from the arrest and seizure trap at the meeting had set the headlines alight, but decades of routine fictional faster than light travel had grossly lowered the possible shock value of it finally happening for real. The Earth public had known for a long time about asteroid miners and many of their doings, of course. Ardan pluteweed found self-seeding on Earth on atom bomb test sites, with a biochemistry wildly different from that of Earth plants, had started more speculation, as had the lack of success in looking for where so much unauthorized long-lasting asteroid miner suit kit was coming from. Definite news of Anor and Arda and Ilmenost getting into the Earth public media was an event long heralded which caused scientific and public excitement but no massive culture shock after so many fictional equivalents and various real astronomical speculations that this or that star had planets.
NASA and the other Earth space authorities saw no reason not to accept that Anor was the only star in its space area to have planets. Some remembered resignedly other events: often Australian officialdom, while the land was being taken up there, had finally got around to giving an area of outback land to an owner, only to find a faster unofficial settler already well at home there, so often that in parts of Australia `squatter' had come to mean `landowner'. Men on Earth debated whether to struggle any more with developing the PL-prop and similar or whether to buy them from Ilmenost or to try to get a copy of their plans from there.
There was the first official Earth expedition to another star: an astronomer who had used a long-trip spacesuit before, and five NASA men who had to be trained hurriedly to use them, and were far from happy about having to travel asteroid miner fashion instead of in a craft that they could unsuit in. Earth pride of enterprise liked this very little, and cursed Company secrecy for preventing development of Earth skill with hyperspace jumpers, for after the Sardaukar mishap the whole idea of hyper jumpers had been tidied away out of sight and its existence denied, to cover up'. Also they did not want men to travel and settle further than the Companies could control. Now it had to be restarted at last. Officials and scientists were rounded up from other projects and places that they had dispersed to. Four of the scientists involved could not be found (three of them were at Ilmenost, for they `didn't like what was going on' and had gone over to the `enemy'); an important official involved had died at home of a heart attack.
The usual `St.Alzheimer's Day' as deep-buried personal and computer memories of a project long suspended were painfully slowly dug up and got working again, became several months; papers had been shredded; floppies were in encrypted formats. Meetings lengthened as delays multiplied, until the astronomer waited no longer, but put on a PL-prop spacesuit that he had bought `on the side' from landing asteroid miners. He had used it twice, puzzling NASA when a failed instrument in an astronomy satellite started working again before a shuttle could get there, when he had got tired of delays and excuses. Now he used it again, and not in secret; after ten days missing from his lab he suddenly appeared in the meeting room in a paper-scattering wind and a cloud of grey distortion, and with him an Ilmenostian hyperspace jumper operator. The men at the meeting realized the inevitable as the outsider hyper man and the astronomer went off to collect the five NASA men and supplies.
The expedition craft had been ready for some time, except for an empty place still waiting for its Earth-made hyperspace jumper. `Explorer-1' it was called, and great things were expected of it beyond the light-years; but it lay unused in long grass by the palmetto forest edge at Cape Canaveral, and its crew's short-trip spacesuits in it. The hyper man, whose hyper jumper was asteroid miner group type and not a ship-jumper, found the five NASA men and suited them up in his own way, hurriedly trained them with a propulsor-simulator that he had brought, got stores where they could, announced their intentions, and set off. NASA put a brave face on it, but in private cursed all officialdom and lamented what might have been. Seven small aeroplanelike figures towing their heavier kit in a missile-shaped winged tow crate rose tethered to each other from a lab yard in an unfilmable rainy night into a black turbulent sky, while the sleek streamlined craft of intended fame lay on the ground and the majestic music intended to accompany its public takeoff stayed unplayed in a cassette rack, victim not of deep political or financial plot but of mere ordinary delay until someone sought what other route he could.
Even so and not as intended, they set off, with the comforts of Earth sinking below them and nothing but a self-propelled spacesuit between each of them and the empty light years. They rose three hundred feet and turned horizontal, seeking an end to the storm cloud and its eddies. Lightning flashed about. Finally the hyper man's suit radar found a fast smooth updraught, which they flew into and rode. The stars appeared as they rose out of the storm cloud's anvil-shaped top of ice fog into the stratosphere; soon they were in space, and the ice coating they got from the cloud started to break and evaporate off. The NASA men tried their suit propulsors for a while; then the hyper man told them to pack into a ball round him and to pull in all trailing loops of tether.
As NASA had planned, they went to Capella, a double star suffering from middle age spread; it is at the deep yellow stage of expansion to red giants after its cores ran out of hydrogen and started burning helium to carbon. There is little to record of it. The hyper jumper man jumped with them twice to get parallax fixes, then to the place. As in an old science fiction book title, `Capella's golden eyes' looked at them, for the two stars pull each other into oval shape; but as usual with doubles there are no planets; various fictional Capellan planetary worlds evaporated into cold empty reality. The astronomer took many photographs of the two stars of Capella with their blotchy surface pattern of various temperature colours caused by convection in their huge rarefied shells. As the two stars swell and become tenuous, their centres become dense: the eventual white dwarfs are preforming inside the red giants. He also photographed the sky star patterns. The NASA men looked in wonder through their breathing mask eye-windows at distorted but sometimes recognizable Earth constellations, and asked the hyper man which star was the Sun. After a few days the hyper man jumped them back to Earth; they spoke their minds about the smell that emanated when they unsuited. So ended Earth's first official space expedition out of the Solar System, with Ilmenostian kit, to a place where Ilmenostians had been before, and with an Ilmenostian effectively in command. And after it all they still did not know which was the hyperspace jumper out of the clutter of communication and navigation etc gear on its user's spacesuit.
What to do now? So had happened Earth's first official interstellar flight, with whichever of the NASA men might have got fame as captain of the craft, and his subordinates duly chosen, mere accompaniers of an outsider treating it as a routine delivery journey, propulsors strapped to their backs, cabins reduced to the air room inside their suits. How now to boast of a proud first expedition?
"In this seat one of us might have sat as captain," said one of the five NASA men as they looked round the Explorer-1 afterwards, longing for what might have been, "and found our own way to Capella, and got fame like Gagarin's, and the ship's name likewise, if only those dirty trading finance-minded companies had got on with using and improving the hyper jumper instead of hiding it like that. OK, OK, there's no true vengeance against a stargazer who got tired of waiting for his ride so he got transport where he could. And we get stuffed into asteroid miner suits and jumped there as passengers by some runaway asteroid miner who treats that sort of journey like we treat going to the next town. OK, we've been to Capella as planned. At least those Sardines or whatever they're called had better sense than the Companies: they gave copies of their hyperspace jumper about for other people to use and improve. But that still means someone else did all the exciting stuff for us. If we ever do get to fly it, the first time I'll not take spoon feeding with some ready-made coordinate list: I'll jump about and triangulate and find the place myself just like we were going to, and claim discovery rights when we get back - fresh after an onboard shower, and not smelling like stale sewage after the better part of a month shut up in a dirty Ilmenostian spacesuit. But who'd stand at the top of the list now?: Protak Pete who leads the X-100's, a rough dirty asteroid miner nicknamed after a dirty radioactive waste element [= protactinium] that he uses to run his suit powerpack. OK, it's not his fault, it's whoever ran that silly Project Saudaukar unpleasant hard space police enforcement squad idea that caused all this.".
Some tried to celebrate the five men's flight as it had happened, and they were feted, and the astronomer with them; but they had no real achievements of pilotage to boast of after their endless explorations of the imaginary in the nearest that NASA could make to a hyper jumper simulator with such knowledge of hyper jumpers as had been released to them yet. And the hyper jumper man had tried the hyper jumper simulator and found that it acted nothing like the real thing, and said so, writing-off weeks of intensive training with a few words.
Some consoled themselves with fiction, and made a sequel of "Terror of the Space Pirates" in which, after the space pirates' feared base and kit had been completely destroyed and RD'ed, the `Explorer-1', completed faster than in reality, flew as planned as the start of Earth's follow-up space exploration effort, with many heroic deeds by its crew in the far distances between Earth and Capella; but that was only fiction.
Some on Earth found what they could about the X-100's and how they found Anor and its planets, and computer simulation reconstructed it as they could, and made a good story film of it, claiming it as Earth's first interstellar expedition, even though neither NASA's Houston nor Russia's Kaliningrad (near Moscow) nor any other Earth mission control had had command or knowledge of it. Ilmenost had a good standard film version of it, but a copy of it that found its way to Earth was unwelcome there as it was because of very strong opinions voiced in it about the asteroid metals trading companies, and a very detailed revealing of Project Sardaukar's methods and purpose. But the fact remained, that while on Earth the hyper jumper lay hidden and other spacecraft projects were delayed by official procedure, Ilmenost developed them and got ahead and very far ahead, and will likely be so for a long time.
The `Explorer-1' did finally fly, with an Ilmenostian ship-jumper and pilot, as a routine supplies carrier, for tethered groups of men in long-trip suits with suit-sized hyper jumpers proved ever to be the most cost-effective short and medium range interstellar explorers unless needing to carry much heavy kit. Matters slid into Ilmenost being a usual place to get space kit, as Japan for electronics and motorcycles or India for tea or Izhevsk in Russia for rifles.
Earth finally got to make hyper jumpers, man-sized and ship-sized. Some talked hopefully of making in secret a big fleet of PSC-4's, and its hoped-for successors the PSC-5 and so on, and support craft, and programming sentient computer-brains, and training men, and when ready cleaning up all asteroid miner disobedience once and for all, and consuming the free spacemen's supply base Ilmenost and all other such places by massive assault as a crocodile crushes and swallows a river turtle.
There had been other cleanups. In some places diving was now for work only and scuba divers not known to a closely controlling central authority longer had their own uncontrolled way to poach shellfish or raid wrecks or nose about underwater for fun. A variety of naval and para-naval and inshore fishermen's work and dredging and patrol craft, many submersible, routinely shot them with high-powered underwater ultrasound guns or caught them and their boats in grabs or sucked them up "along with all the other rubbish that gets in the water around here". There were dark allegations about what happened to them onboard to avoid wasting men's time as witnesses afterwards at official or unofficial courts. Such happens when ever-multiplying people invade ever more working men's work room and base areas for leisure room when those working men need to be left alone even more to provide ever more supplies for ever-multiplying people.
But such a space cleanup is in the future if it ever happens; currently it is stalled by ever more small and medium Earth nations recognizing Ilmenost as independent. On Earth some celebrated the Capella Five despite the unintended way their mission turned, and some celebrated what they knew of the X-100's.
Astronomers loudly clamoured for hyperspace jumpers and training in using them, or for hyper jump men to fly with them. Some astronomers directly contacted PL-prop spacemen landing at an observatory; officials heard of it and threatened to wield powers, causing a public shouting row about new and old Earth military / commercial attempts to monopolize or control all space travel; during this the expedition was organized.
Hoteliers in the New South Wales outback town of Coonabarabran in Australia had a run on accommodation as astronomers gathered there. They met and drove through semi-arid eucalyptus woodland and areas of cattle grazing to the nearby Siding Spring Mountain Observatory. Next day, the few early morning visitors to the surrounding Warrumbungle National Park saw with astonishment a wingless craft flying in over the dry forested tops of the Warrumbungle Mountains. It was an Ilmenost-made PSC-4. One man there recognized it with angry envy, for he was a space metals trading Company man who had long in vain fought against delay after delay in getting Earth-made PSC-4's to a prototype, and here was one working and in use - made by `the enemy' and manned not by a hard-minded space police squad but by a group of wild free asteroid miners called the Quasars. Alongside it flew a flock of what looked at first like small aeroplanes but proved to be men in spacesuits with clip-on wings; they were the Jetters. It passed low over the upstanding rock peaks known as the Bread Knife and the Belougery Spire which attract many tourists to the area. Scared grey kangaroos fled as it landed. Fourteen astronomers gathered round it.
The spacemen flying with it landed beside it. Some of them unsuited, without smell; they had used an in-suit washer before landing. It was Plutey-pots's first time on the ground in the Australian outback, although he had flown over it several times when he was Mr.Blore the businessman before he went into space. They unloaded twenty long-trip spacesuits from its drum-shaped collapsible hold, and sorted out one for each of the astronomers, who looked at them with various feelings, for a few of them had thought they would be in pressurized cabins most of the time, and many had not bothered to read properly the information that they had been sent about their spacesuits. In the PSC-4's cabin, its ominous `empty hold into RD' lever was clamped very solidly `off'. They suited-up, with the expected delay while the principles of such suits were explained, which they should have read from the info pack before. Then came `sorting the loot', as Space Explorer tour operators sometimes irritatedly call reducing optimistic bagfuls and suitcasefuls to what fits into a spacesuit's inside and outside packs. Out came the changes of clothes, formal for supposed dinners and informal for supposed leisure interludes. Out came the toiletries and washing stuff, for their spacesuits would be providing for that. Out came assorted items that would not have withstood space vacuum. Out came a great variety of food and alcoholic drink. From the two women's luggage, out came an incredible amount of cosmetics. Out came portable typewriters, a portable photocopier, and office gear of every description. The Quasars' two electronics men were soon busy rigging up adaptors and tethers for the astronomers' assorted laptop computers to run off their spacesuit powerpacks.
The astronomers reacted various ways to their unfamiliar kit. "RD's give me the shudders," said one, "the way everything vanishes into them, like that big one in the Council refuse destruction depot, and is ground up and dissolved, and now I find I'm carrying a little one about with me on my spacesuit as part of its sewage destruction system.".
The PSC-4's collapsible hold, vacated of the spacesuits, was assigned first to observing equipment, which was duly packed in with inflatable padding. This took most of the space; the more useful of the office gear took what of the rest was not needed for frozen O,Rh- blood and other emergency medical supplies. The rest had to be `left luggage' to be repacked and stored in the observatory until the party returned. The astronomers finished sorting their kit, and tethered to the Jetters. The Jetters switched their suit propulsors on and rose slowly and heavily, towing the astronomers, whose experience with propulsor spacesuits was zero; takeoff from an Earth-sized planet is not a good choice of first flying lesson with one, if it can be avoided, and it would take less time to train them in propulsor use in space during the journey. When in orbit, they started to get used to propulsor flying in an easier way, until the PSC-4 met them. For many of the astronomers, even that was quite an experience; but they were not in space merely to see things that had been well photographed from close-up already. They flew about awkwardly and bunched closely against the PSC-4. Several of them made startled radio noises as everything went grey round them as its big onboard hyperspace jumper took them to near Ilmenost in the Anor system, where they were lent more observing kit and given a large package of CD-ROM's containing what had been discovered so far about the Anor system and the space area about.
Two of the astronomers left the group to look at a house-sized meteoroid that one of them's suit radar had seen; they had got halfway there when the PSC-4's threatening front gun muzzle fired a small missile-like one-man craft which outran them and untelescoped as it scooped them into itself at speed and took them back to the PSC-4. If it had been in action against unauthorized space activity, as was planned by some Earth authorities when trying to make them, it would have quickly pumped them into an armoured hold in the PSC-4, which might later have transferred them to a bulk prisoner transport; but it was not; it let them go with a sharp reminder about tethered group discipline and inexperience in propulsor flying. If they want long tethers, then well, but don't untether unless the group leader says they can. It was a slight reminder that the PSC-4 was designed not as an expedition luggage carrier (as it was being used then) nor its magazineful of one-man pursuit craft as mini tugs (as sometimes used on Ilmenostian space building sites) but as a terrifyingly efficient base-buster and antipersonnel craft designed by the space metals trading Companies in their time of power, equipped with powerful lasers, missiles, and sensors to detect nearby developing hyperspace jump fields.; The free spacemen had got hold of the plans and completed them and made several of them as a defence in case. Manned by the X-100's, even hampered by needing to capture all alive and unhurt, it had cleaned out the `Faithful Brethren' in one quick action as easily and completely as a street-cleaners' van's RD-trailer digests a wasps' nest. About using them as work craft, Plutey-pots remembered some pre-industrial nations' laws about armed readiness that said that civilian-owned horses (except necessary heavy breeds) must be fit for the cavalry and not ponies or donkeys or low-grade nags.
They clustered round the craft while it jumped to a star system that the X-100's had found while looking for Anor: it was a binary, and one of the pair was a pulsar. It was no place to hang about, in the powerful spinning magnetic field, and the occasional blasts of atomic particles and radioactive dirt as a meteoroid or the like fell into the pulsar. The ceaseless flashing started to make them feel brainwashed. It seemed unreal that something six miles diameter could be as heavy as the Sun and spin that fast: it was no sort of normal matter but a single giant atom nucleus. The astronomers recorded what they could before Jet Jack called them off and they thankfully hyper jumped away. Pulsars, like some big Ardan animals, are best admired from a distance.
They jumped into the Pleiades cluster. It was an astonishing place. Some of the stars were nearly as bright as a half moon, and many were as bright as Venus, so that they could see each other clearly without artificial light; much of the sky was milky from the cluster's interstellar gas. Many of the stars were still blowing away the rest of the gas and dust that they had formed from. A radar echo proved to be a young planet flying loose, that had managed to form in a binary system before being inevitably thrown out; eventually it would freeze white and dead. Binaries of every description. Equal pairs, unequal pairs, pairs of pairs. Some time ago a few correctly placed supernovas in a dense part of a spiral arm of our galaxy had swept a space area's incredibly scarce gas and dust together until gravity pulled it together and made stars. Over the millions of years the present tight cluster would scatter across space like a family's children scatter when they become adult; but each binary would stay together. The Jetters remembered the long `double, double, toil and trouble' that the X-100's had been through among endless `childless couple' binaries before finding at last a single star with planets and naming it Anor.
The astronomers opened their tow crate to get data storage and recorded observations endlessly. The Jetters were more interested in the proportion of useful metals in the gas and dust, and how they could collect it, and whether it was worth the effort trying that far from base. "Now that's more relevant!" said Rattler when an astronomer said something about faint but clear uranium and plutonium and curium absorption lines in a star spectrum: actinides as a power source are ever useful to free spacemen. They looked at a single star: round it orbited a thick disk of dust and objects up to asteroid size which after many million years would settle into an orderly system of planets. In the mean time far too much was colliding with other things for anyone to want to set up an asteroid base there. They moved on again. Each man's spacesuit's unattractively functional mini RD and recycling system, powered by a nuclear powerpack, destroyed his waste output and gave him a steady supply of oxygen and water and liquid food; that and his suit propulsor gave him personal speed and range better than many of the large complicated early spacecraft.
They saw observations of Aldebaran that an Ilmenostian expedition had made some time before, the huge insubstantial ball of gas wider than Earth's orbit, merely red hot on its surface, blotchy from somewhat hotter patches brought up in convection cells, so diffuse in its outer layers that the spacemen had flown some way inside the star without harm, a doubtful achievement sometimes called `star-diving'. Far inside a dense core was forming as gravity collapse scratched together the ever mightier heat needed to set alight ever poorer nuclear fusion fuel until all its inner parts had been turned to a star's ultimate ash, iron and nickel, and the big collapse would send the star into meltdown with an explosion as bright as a whole galaxy. That is a supernova, and in a hail of flying neutrons every higher element up to the limit of stability would be made in a few seconds. Plus perhaps that scientist's dream, isotope 298 of element 114, ununquadium, eka-lead, whatever you call it, among the fabulous superheavy elements far beyond the actinides, with just enough protons and neutrons to make a special complete pattern of each to keep the nucleus together against heavy element instability. And if found after all their searching it would be much like lead but heavier, the theoretical chemists said. They left such fancies and photographed the star patterns and ran the auto spectrum recorder, and such routine astronomical work, floating in emptiness tethered to each other many dozen light years from Earth among the dazzle of close-packed bright young stars and the ethereal trails and streaks of gas and dust being blown about by light radiation pressure. They packed their observing gear away and huddled round the PSC-4 for its hyper jumper to take them to their next stop.
"We don't need the aliens coming from the beyond, with this lot around." said one of the astronomers, "They go routinely to the surface of their equivalent of Venus, and we [= Earth] haven't even sent an unmanned lander to ours since those two in the 1980's. We've got a lot of catching up to do. And I want an enclosed craft to work in, somewhere to spread papers and floppies out, not to have to work in open space with everything tethered with string or it'd end up drifting everywhere between here and Aldebaran. At least that collapsible net cage to work in's better than nothing, but I've still got to tether all thin things or they'd go through the mesh. All right for the young ones to yahoo about with propulsors bolted to their backs, like motorcyclists on land, but I'm the car type. I'd like to get out of this @#% spacesuit sometimes. Not many round here can live in atmosphere, only a few scientists and storemen that need the pressure volume for their work. In the old days all spacemen could go into pressure and take their spacesuits off overnight.".
"And be base-bound and have to obey everything the Companies said." one of the Quasars replied, "Even after that when we could go further on a trip, rules, rules, weren't allowed to see Earth newspapers till they'd cut all the space and finance news and finance metals prices out of them, all radios designed so we couldn't pick up Earth broadcasting stations. First thing `illegal' that Spanner Sam (Jetters) did was altering his mates' suit radios so they could pick up BBC World Service when they pointed their nav scope [= navigational radio telescope] at Earth. Back to the old evil, a punishable offence to believe the BBC over lying official handouts. They allowed us any sort of long-trip suit only 'cos it was costing them too much keeping collection and suit refilling points within a few hours suit flight of everywhere. Prospectors first were allowed long-trip suits, then more of us. They thought we couldn't do anything that mattered if they controlled all the ways to and from Earth. But we found ways round it: we set up our own workshops here and there. And we got that hyper jumper and copied it: holy $%@# that was a stroke of luck. We used it to `liberate' the plans for the PSC-4 and got it working, which they haven't yet. We designed our PL-props ourselves. More and more unauthorizedness till they had to slacken off. Then for all their united front and business suited `sorrybut and all that' managerial manner things were going bad till recently crash bang wallop the whole space metals trading Companies business structure went into meltdown like a bad reactor, good riddance to it, and we were left alone. And on Earth it was left to NASA to pick up as many of the pieces as it could, and they found we'd done a lot of their work for them some time ago, like on their Capella expedition.".
"I know." said an astronomer, "Now the big crash has let NASA pull clear of Companies and Arrangements and all that (with a shouting match with guns drawn in their boardroom), there's a hellish row going on between them and what's left of the Companies. A dinner to try to patch things up between them turned into a running fist and chair fight between them, and a Company agent who'd been in Fletcher Metals Brokers was electric shock interrogated for an hour to try to make him tell what'd happened to hyperspace jumpers down the years when NASA could've been developing them and exploring with them. Not like NASA men to do that sort of thing: some of their scientists just `went over the top' with what they could rig up on the spot. That slick business suit and his sorry-but-ing and smooth excuses simply made them `see red', when drink at the dinner loosened tongues and things came out. No wonder. Exploration by NASA rather than by the Companies was almost at a standstill. Commercial security didn't want outsiders to know where metals were, and suchlike, and didn't want more to be explored than the Companies could control, endless obstruction and veiled threats, for the Companies had arrangements with NASA's suppliers, and NASA's top levels were packed with Company men. Finally at the dinner NASA's director tore up all trading agreements despite the law and threatened buy supplies `even from that place Ilmenost that they've set up out there' if he had to. The reply was more threats of legal action and `difficulties' in business-ese, and after that the shouting and then the fighting started.
If NASA'd had the hyper jumper as soon as it was invented, they might've got Explorer-1 into space and to a star system years ago, instead of delays till that stargazer couldn't wait any longer and its crew were taken there as passengers by that runaway asteroid miner like some common taxi ride. And the endless excuses and sorrybut sorrybut not in Company interests etc that we got when we tried to get scientists out there or the like and never mind it was NASA not them started space travel. We had more samples and information from the asteroids unauthorizedly from asteroid miners than we ever had officially from the Companies, and now they've got PL-props the dike is down. As it is, of the Capella five, we don't even know which'd've been captain and so on. There's little point in Earth people trying to console themselves by writing fiction stories about the Explorer-1 flying as planned crewed and navigated by the five, like I've seen.".
"Yes, I saw a comic-strip version that my son brought home." said another, "Quite well told. I hadn't been so saddened by anything read for a long time, realizing that all that could have been real. This one of the five could have been captain of the Explorer-1, like in the story; that one could have been navigator, and so on, learning as they went more about how to hyperspace jump navigate and travel to the stars, if those Companies had told us about hyper jumpers in time. As it is they told us lies that hyper jumping was impossible and we didn't know otherwise till those asteroid miners hyper jumped out of a trap at that meeting. Then we realized that various space `ghost stories' were likely actually hyper jumping by asteroid miners, and more when we got a proper look at matter used by that creepy TV series `The Unexplained' or that had been used to write Ghostbusters episodes around. Then the Companies coughed up at last that hyper jumpers exist. I don't blame the astronomer, or that Ilmenostian that he called in. NASA had to take men off proper work to crack encrypted floppies and even do safebreakers' work when Companies' safe and strongroom keys and lock combinations couldn't be got hold of: it'll be over a year before we can even think of making a first-model spacesuit hyper jumper like that one the `Sardaukar' ran off with, let alone a ship-jumper or the refinements that'll be needed. Or we'll have to buy them from that lot at Ilmenost like so many inventions that slipped away from the nations that started them.".
Several more jumps and observing sessions followed as the men's long-trip suits let them lengthen the expedition as long as they wished, for their suits' nuclear powerpacks lasted for between ten years and a lifetime. The Jetters left and went about their own work. The astronomers and the Quasars landed on Arda twice, and were glad to breathe natural air after weeks on end of looking out through breathing mask eye-windows at space vacuum. With the expected shudder they looked from the air at Nunarien among a tangle of forested mountains and gorges. They were given a set of reports on Anor and its planets and satellites, and got more data storage in Ilmenost.
Finally they loaded their observing and recording kit into the PSC-4's collapsible hold for the last time, and crowded round it. The now familiar Anor constellations disappeared into flat grey and the Sun's constellations appeared instead; they were closely orbiting their friendly familiar Earth at last. Near Orion were the Pleiades, back to their familiar size, so remote-looking; had they really been among and beyond them? No hope of seeing Anor through them. The Pleiades and the other stars disappeared behind blue sky as the spacemen flew in down southwestwards over the Pacific. They reached Australia and flew over the Blue Mountains with their blue haze of eucalyptus oil from the forests that covered them, then over the grass and wheat lands beyond. No recent supernova fallouts had dosed the land with fresh actinides; no uncontained natural nuclear reactor lurked among the well-known Australian mountains or drained into one of its rivers; no Ardan landmine bushes grew among the bush and scrub further inland. They were home. They caused UFO reports in the New South Wales outback under their flight path. At last they found the Castlereagh River, shaded with willow trees and never drying up, and saw the Siding Spring Mountain observatory dome on one of a line of low mountains nearby.
"Well," one of the astronomers thought, "I've seen some things that I never imagined that I would, in this alien-looking kit like a cross between a jet fighter pilot and an aeroplane and a flying sewage works, and no prizes guessing which I'll smell like when I unsuit unless this PSC-4's got an onboard in-suit washer after all; but I'm glad to be home.". So they thought, with variations, and landed much more expertly than when they had flown independently the first time. The observatory staff had brought their left luggage down from the observatory store, and a mobile shower; they thankfully unsuited and showered very thoroughly and dressed, and unloaded their kit from the PSC -4's hold. The Quasars checked the suits and stored them away and flew away.
"They are gradually getting to treat the Anor system as home." one of the astronomers said, "For example they still for now keep a memory of Earth flowers, as names sometimes given to their girl children; but all the pot plants I've seen in pressure areas in that place Ilmenost have been nothing I've seen before. I just can't identify with all that alien Ardan and Karnilian stuff they decorate places with, either as plants or as pictures of them. Give me the Earth daffodil any day, to brighten a room properly. One man I saw even had a big pot of pluteweed in his lab trailing everywhere, I know it from those great dayglo orange flowers it's got: hanged if I'd want all that plutoniumy garden waste to have to keep getting rid of. Yekkh.".
"Not always." said another, "I know it needs plute normally, in two enzymes in its roots, as well as to make its leaves poisonous to prevent grazing; but they've found that if they give the plant two biochemicals that those enzymes usually make it doesn't need plute after all. I've seen the stuff grown on Earth in pots like that, after it came up on that test site in Nevada that time. If you can't get used to appreciating the native plants of where you are, try reading Rudyard Kipling's poem `The Flowers' (`Buy my English posies!', etc).".
"Never mind pretty flowers." said a visiting businessman irritatedly, "How much did you see of their business and financial customs?".
"Quite a bit different from ours, from what I saw and heard." said one, "To them:-
- There is no `company limited liability'. Directors are personally liable for their companies' liabilities, and vice versa, even after the company has been wound up: i.e. companies are the same as partnerships. Companies with directors in common are responsible for each other's debts.
- Shareholders can't tell the company what to do. This and the previous `throw into the RD' the whole joint-stock system, and there is no such thing as limited companies, only partnerships. Adjourning negotiations to consult shareholders is classed as an `inexcusable delay' or `an excuse rather than a reason' that can justify breaking-off an agreement.
- There is no debt interest. Agreements to pay any sort of interest are null and void, even if you try to evade their law by calling the interest something else. But if X has lent money to Y, and Y hasn't paid it back as agreed, a court (not X himself) can order Y to pay compensation as well as the original sum, if X has lost out from not having the money when needed. Or if Y is forever on the borrow from different people and not paying them back.".
- `Unnecessary' rehandling of goods by way of trade can be stopped by court order, and its participants send back to productive manual work. A complicated finance and business structure must not be allowed to develop.
- A price stated at first is the price. Anything describable as an `extra' or a `charge' or the like on top of it, need not be paid....".
"And I suppose every %$@ handcuff-and-leg-iron consumer protection law that was ever passed anywhere between here and Capella, I suppose, so we can't do a thing." the businessman interrupted angrily, "I thought those @%# asteroid miners'd go like that if they were left to themselves. Again financially ignorant idealists go like that. Like Moses's `Thou shalt not lend thy money on usury.' in the Bible somewhere, and we know how long that rule lasted when business practicality intruded. And likely if we buy anything from them they'll want US dollars cash or valuable metals to the value at once, and won't take cheques or promises. I know what they thought of Company credits, back here.".
"That sort of attitude can be understood." said another, "They're building up and everyone's labour's needed and they can't carry businessmen or officials or statistics-collectors or any other sort of idle hand.".
"A whole society living in spacesuits nearly all the time." said another, "I couldn't take that. Spacesuits are something that I wear only when I have to. The whole thing smells of workerism run rampant. We'll get no financial good from them. It smells of something else as well, when they unsuit.".
"And another thing. They are not forever threatening and shooting each other with work lasers and other sorts of ray guns over metals and supplies like in some `pot-boiler' space thrillers. The last time I heard of one asteroid miner shooting another was when the Quasars were on Earth and a stray dog ran up to one of them and bit him on the hand and he ignored it, but over the weeks he started to act odd and got afraid of his feeding tube and they had to restrain him, and at their next chance to unsuit he clearly had rabies, in the furious stage. Out in space far from anywhere there was nothing to do but shoot him to shorten his suffering. Sad business. #@$% filthy animals dogs are. Another thing about anything real or fictional that consists largely of fighting is that stuff used up in fights has to be made somewhere. They are not like in that film `Terror of the Space Pirates', and even if they were someone would have had to make all the fancy kit and craft and weapons that both sides used in the raiding and battles.".
They continued to find things to talk about. Finally the astronomers collected their left luggage and went back to Earth life; the information that they brought back kept their theoretical colleagues busy for a long time afterwards.
Other times, other pickups. By now some Earth towns let PL-prop spacemen run contact points on the ground for people who wanted to trade with them and also for people who wanted to join them. The latter were well vetted and checked, and they had a steady supply of young entry that way - young, as men in their fifties or older with no useful skills usually found when they enquired. In the past new entry had to be got where it could to add to the Company-authorized asteroid miners: down the years the free spacemen's training system had digested Company runaways, a commune of hippies who had gone to space, assorted fugitives from debt or justice, and various unfortunate officials and businessmen singly and once a large batch of them who were now the F-15's. Hard was the fate of a 54-year-old man, out of physical condition and with no skill but administrating and finance, who suddenly found himself at steady manual work in a long-trip work spacesuit so far away that the stars were completely different, but it had happened. But now new entry could volunteer and be chosen.
For all of most people's living memory most parts of Earth have been within about a week's travel at most of most other parts, and even quicker to send messages. But space travel has brought back the times when journeys routinely took weeks, and emigration partings often as final as the parting of death, when the young and eager go to space, and parents cry on their sons' and daughters' spacesuited shoulders before the final departure into the sky or through the clouds or by hyperspace jump, and the well-meaning loading down with spare clothes and best clothes and all sorts of junk for the group leader to have to dump as he sorts out what is needed and will fit into the suits' packs and the group's tow crates. Some departers may weary of space and alienness and return to life on earth, and eventually perhaps die peacefully in bed. Some may visit home briefly. Others' relatives as years pass will realize with a slight shudder that when the end comes their sons or nephews will never come to cemetery or crematorium and a place where they can be said to `lie asleep', but to a spaceman's funeral and to vanish tracelessly into their group's towed RD in space far from anywhere; and until then the light years stretch wide and empty between a man helping to settle the Anor system and an old woman on Earth who looks at the Pleiades whenever she can at night.
Old memories died hard, and sometimes old practices re-surfaced, for personal reasons. Rattler PL-propped from orbit to London on Earth to see his old parents for the first time for many years, and Plutey-pots and Cobra came with him. An ordinary social visit; there was much family news to hear, as the Companies had never worked out an effective public mail route from Earth addresses to asteroid miners, and valuable items mailed to or by asteroid miners via Company mail were usually seized in transit for money allegedly owed, until the senders learned not to use the mail. But the area had gone down, and as often, as evening came, teenagers from nearby estates gathered to vandalize and make trouble; the police were called and made brief ineffective visits. Such an odd occurrence as three spacemen landing to visit excited the gang into even more nastiness and mockery and harassment, as is described in too many places elsewhere for me to waste words here; Rattler's parents pleaded with their son not to come again, although they wanted to see him, as it excited the hooligans. The spacemen went back to orbit. It was February, and it was dark early. Rattler, like the NASA men at the dinner had, saw red at what his parents were going through, and decided.
Next night the spacemen came again, and Jet Jack with them. They visited, and went out onto waste ground. Rattler's parents pleaded; Rattler promised unspecified consequences. The gang gathered. The spacemen pretended to be grounded by propulsor trouble, and appealed for help, and were mocked. More and more gang gathered, pushing closer, and trying to pull their kit off; the spacemen's lasers were in their suit outside packs out of reach. The gang saw grey around them and became weightless. Some of them went `high' at the unexpected drug-like experience; but others lost all cheekiness and from what they knew via the public media recognized with utter despair that they were being hyperspace jumped. In either case they offered little resistance to being stuffed into pressure bags, just in time before the hyper field left them in vacuum in the Anor star system which few of them had heard of. Such random abduction recruitment of public was against the usage of free spacemen, who knew what it was like having their own freedom not respected; but many sorts of work-hardened organized men would have taken some sort of hard action despite the law on finding relatives harassed by that sort of character.
The rest of the matter is like events described before. Something sent them to sleep. They woke in Ilmenostian spacesuits in totally alien circumstances weightless with a complete sphere of stars round them. After they were trained, they were finally dispersed one here one there among different groups after it was decided not to treat the captured gang as a ready-made new group. Each had a hard time having the punk cheekiness and idleness knocked out of him, plus for several of them `cold turkey' from various drugs. None of them had a useful skill; `experience with computers' always turned out to mean videogames only. Even so they came to actual rather than imagined manhood and a lifetime of productive work and having to obey their elders; the novelty of `being an astronaut' soon wore off. Each finally realized when at his first chance to take his spacesuit off he found under it only an undersuit and the usual smell and not his jeans and impressively studded leather jacket and proudly-displayed gang insignia and weapons; he guessed all too well what had happened to them, as by then he had found what spaceman groups' large towed RD's were for.
Back on the estate in London, the event had been seen. It caused newspaper headlines locally for two days. The abductees' parents in their estates accused Rattler's parents and others of encouraging the spacemen to take their sons, and pleaded ignorance of what their sons had been doing. The police tried to interrogate some of the other spacemen's ground representatives, but achieved little. People who had suffered from hooliganism demonstrated in the area supporting the spacemen's action and wanting the gang to be tried in absentia for their demands for money and other harmful deeds. Talk of ransoming or otherwise getting the abductees back caused a chorus of sharp `No!''s, for the residents were weary of the culprits being called naughty boys and let go to steal again or to demand extra money to pay their fines: some said angrily that they'd've paid to have them taken away, not to get them back.
News came back across the light years to the abductees' parents where their sons were, and letters could pass between as fast as anyone going between could be found, and some of the parents felt a little relieved. Some alleged that `Terror of the Space Pirates' was coming true after all, and others pointed out who the terror had been coming from in reality this time. The police didn't like the implication that they couldn't do their job properly, and the event stung them into more effective action against teenage gangs for a while.
Another pickup went unnoticed, or at least not complained about. About now the well-known electronics expert Red Scorpion rejoined his group the Pallas-2's. He had been missing since a Company loader craft with a modified hold had caught them and two other groups by deception. They had been kept as captive workers in Company suits which needed refilling each day, at a remote mobile base near Vesta, until the Jetters rescued them. Now he was unexpectedly with them again. He seemed undefinably different and complained of weird and often bad dreams, which he had not had before, but he looked and sounded the same, with the same marks and scars including a large oxyacetylene torch burn down his right side. With electronics he seemed somehow awkward, but he gradually returned to his former easy skill which he had started at nine years old in his father's workshop in Birmingham in England and continued with until he moved to Swansea; his original name was unremarkable: John Wilson. He explained that he had been busy elsewhere and then for two months ill. The full story of what had happened to him in the meantime was described before. Anyway, he was mostly the same as he always had been. Like Rattler, he wanted to visit his parents. With Long Tom and a few others from his group, he flew down from orbit to the area, remembered the town pattern, found south Birmingham, remembered the street pattern, found the place, and descended. The map-like air view became a terrace street scene as he sank below the roofs and landed. His space gear startled his parents, but they recognized his face and voice and let him in.
Like Rattler, he found that the area had gone down. Like Companies, so town authorities: when overloaded their power shrinks and their rule fades unless something big prods them into fresh action. A factory where many local men had worked was now disused and dossed in by an endemic tramp population which stole where they would, and men had to spend much on security equipment. A formerly well-kept local sports field was now waste ground which a large camp of tinkers had settled on a month before, bullying the area. They were all too efficient with their favourite tool and weapon, heavy oxyacetylene cutter torches (which can make a flame up to a foot long) run off backpack scuba-sized cylinders, in many places where blowtorches are not usually expected. Chain and lock and steel door yielded before them. They backed up their owners' orders, including to the tramps (the painful way, when they gave lip) not to leave their doss without permission and to do whatever work the tinkers told them to. Some residents were briefly thankful for this before finding that they had swopped a fox for a wolf. Everything including garden tools and drying washing had to be kept indoors. The night after the tinkers came, his father Stephen Wilson had had to hurriedly brick up his workshop door and windows for the duration and say that the council had done it; others buried their valuables.
The habits and thievings of such wanderers are well known, and I will not repeat them here. They may not be able to help their present condition; but that is irrelevant. Red Scorpion called down plague and thunderbolt on whoever misguidedly pitying politicians had repealed the good old law against `wandering without visible means of subsistence'; but such cursing never does any good; nor ever did the police, except for chivvying the culprits about a bit sometimes. Well-meaning charities feeding the tramps had not helped matters. He had a red wave of anger, nearly called himself and those with him to set their lasers to high power and settle the matter the quick way, but had other ideas. He radioed for the rest of his group, who by now all had PL-props.
The tramps, after their lessons from the tinkers in obeying orders, were an easy catch. As the Pallas-2's invaded the tramps' doss, laser fire reminded the tramps not to be cheeky or put on airs. The Pallas-2's quickly herded the tramps together and threw over them weighted nets, some intended for making net cages for working in in space so loose work objects won't drift away, some garden bird-excluder nets borrowed from the area. The local householders joined in, and the tramps were soon all tied up and in a large pressure bag.
The tinkers were tougher to crack, and the spacemen were unused to Earth gravity; but some of the spacemen remembered judo that they had learned before going into space, and they and the residents had a few CS-gas grenades between them, and they had other substances that could be used as weapons; the spacemen put their breathing masks on. The tinkers came out of their vehicles and formed up, as often before when opposed by groups of residents. Some of them wore slung diagonally across their chests or backs by rope slings the feared rumoured shiny cylindrical metal bulks of flamethrowers made from big pressurized-liquid fire extinguishers with their hose nozzles fitted with igniters and pistol-grip on/off valves, all too dirtily efficient a weapon and fire-starter; and they had their backpack blowtorches. One resident had such a flamethrower which he had made. Battle was joined, and if the residents had fought unaided the result would not have been in doubt, unless armed police intervened quickly before the blasting volley of twenty-foot-long flame that had settled many confrontations.
A few demonstratory shots from the spacemen's lasers showed what would happen if a pressure-tank full of gas or petrol was hit by one. The tinkers jettisoned their fire-weapons in alarm, cursing about unfair alien weapons, and sticks and clubs and other weapons appeared; more than one said roughly and undefeatedly "Those things can't `brew up' my good old pump-action [shotgun]." or the like. Some of the spacemen propulsor hovered to swoop on and pick up any tinker who tried to run away or get behind the residents. After a running fight all the tinkers including two women and five children were captured and disarmed and tied up and in two pressure bags. The Pallas-2's accepted a few thank gifts that the residents pressed on them, unfolded their suit wings, took off, and rose heavily towing the pressure bags, up through a black fog into stratosphere and the sight of the stars, then into space. In orbit they switched their big towed RD into `regenerate breathing air' mode and connected the pressure bags to it. After a few radio enquiries and a short hyper jump they found enough spare spacesuits in the Solar System, in a deserted Company base now manned by the Sardies who were asteroid mining in the area.
The Sardies' leader spoke his mind strongly and abusively to the Pallas-2's about the sort of stuff they were being expected to waste good spacesuits on and try to turn into work spacemen; Red Scorpion replied as strongly about what his parents and their neighbours had been going through.
"There's been cases o' cop jet fighters comin' after [free asteroid] miners when they land from space 'thout askin'. Another @#% thing to @#$ look out fer. @#% dangerous things that can think far faster'n a man, wi' the right weapons could wipe out an 'undred of us in a minute if we tried landin' there. Lucky not many places keep one yet. We got evens wi' the one that got the Quadrantids with a shrapnel missile that time." said Sardie 2 threateningly, "'E 'ad the right way with a gang o' tramps once though: 'e used a @#% great wide flexible pipe to blast 'is jet's back end on afterburn into their doss 'ole, we 'eard. That stopped the thievin' and turnin' bins out and pesterin'.", and pointed meaningly at two of the Pallas-2's lasers, "OK, yer ran out o' bottle to do the job that way. You and yer parents: we never 'ad parents, we didn't need 'em, we're clones from a Company lab to do their dirty work, till they wouldn't play fair over money and things, and we didn't need the Company any more, so we cut loose. And we're XYY, that's we got two Y chromosomes each 'stead o' one, and that's why we all grew this tall.
They say we're not the only XYY's 'ere: that Control Rod in the X-100's, that atomic scientist, 'e's XYY also. 'E said once there was a story that 'is father 'ad the egg taken out and XYY-ified on purpose, like us, to get a real big 'eavy round the 'ouse when 'e grew up; got 'im a really rough job on the docks to get the best out of the XYY; but 'e wouldn't 'ave it. 'E tried the docks job one day only and went back to school and stayed for 6th form. 'Is father tried calling 'im a @#% useless brainbox and the like a few times, and then gave up on 'im. 'E went on to university, in atomic science, joined one of those space trading Companies till 'e didn't like it in there and got 'old of a [space]suit an' went off with some [asteroid] miners and ended up 'ere. So 'e grew tall but never filled out proper[ly] and ended up like a beanpole. Not much thug in 'im, whatever they say about XYY men. That may be why 'e's called Control Rod: 'e's about as long and thin as one, I've seen reactors' innards a few times.
OK, you want to try to turn those bagfuls of @#$ into spacemen. I reckon we'll make a better job of it than you, if anyone can. Yer leave 'em with us.".
The Sardies may well show a hard contempt of needs for parental affection, for who could they call parents? Their clone-parent?, who at their `conception' was in his 80's, with a long record for violence until only old age stopped it. Or their clone-parent's parents?, who died long before the Sardies were born and were a low type who soon separated and offered little resistance when he was put in a council children's home. Or several unfortunate cows?, whose wombs the Sardies were implanted in artificially as embryos, and who after nine months and a Caesarian section went the way of most beef, out of public sight and objection in a secret lab. Such were the Sardies, and all too many of the standard insults directed at a man's parents are for them literally true.
The catch had to be cleaned. One of the tinkers recognized the towed RD from a newspaper report, and expected his last seconds of life as he was pushed from the pressure bag into its hatch; but it had been fitted with an auto resuiter that Red Scorpion had helped to design. In a space much smaller than a man could work in and so using less air it anaesthetized him, cut his clothes off, shaved off all head and body hair, suited him up, and ejected him; the RD consumed the clothes and caught all escaping air. They put another spacesuit and undersuit in the resuiter and repeated, until all the catch were in spacesuits. Once it flashed a red light for human help when it couldn't cope with an abnormality of its current `patient''s body's natural waste outlets when connecting them to his spacesuit's sewage destructor system. Finally they removed the resuiter. The RD swallowed a pile of unclean leftover rags and bags and bundles; the catching had been hurried and untidy. Remaining lice and the like died in vacuum as it stored all the air from the pressure bags. The Sardies, who hadn't seen such a resuiter before, watched curiously, and thankfully that the Pallas-2's hadn't had to use much air pressurizing a room to do the job.
The Pallas-2's left; the Sardies started to try to turn the catch into spacemen, and were as hard as usual when offered cheek or refusal to learn. The Sardies were well over six feet tall, heavily built, unpleasant looking if their breathing masks were off or had fullface windows, as identical as photocopies, and had serial numbers rather than codenames; their leader was `1'. "Thank @#% those real right efficient thugs and proud of it are on our side." Long Tom said to himself, and so have many before and after. The Jetters' catch were teenagers and quick to learn, and after a few `reminders' adapted well and fast; but most of the Sardies' new trainees were older, fixed in their ways, aggressive and surly or else lazy and shifty, and very poor material.
Of the tramps three proved to be schizophrenics, for many such take to vagrancy; their suit medipacks were set to synthesize and auto dose the correct controlling agent; and two had badly cirrhosed livers and three had meths damage. Then they had to be got used to working steadily without evading or stealing, and to learning; the process was often not gentle; but sheer shock at the alienness of where they were helped to scare them out of making trouble, and many of them had little idea of space or what it is like. The Sardies treated as a challenge finding once in a while whether they could reprocess (at least for supervised unskilled work) such bad raw material, like when a crocodile's stomach has to dissolve a large thick-shelled turtle. Trying to find their names caused cheek and refusals and obvious lies, so they were given numbers.
They were taken to the Arda system, where they stayed, with no way to do such things as selling their kit to buy drink and smoke and then going back to wandering, having to work steadily under supervision until use accepted it and life before they were taken into space retreated into a remote irrelevant past. They had little idea of equipment handling and some of them were of low intelligence, but the standard Ilmenostian long-trip spacesuit is very foolproof when in its maximum safety mode; the Sardies removed their tether release levers and fitted remote control propulsor overrides to them. Some of them were found to be too mentally inadequate for anything but being institutionalized, tethered in a bunch with other mental unfortunates (mostly people who had become so after going into space) to a building where they could watch the passing traffic and listen to the radio chatter under supervision while each one's suit took care of him until his end came in its turn eventually. Others adapted better to a space working life, the easier the younger usually, who had had to resort to vagrancy for a living but were not yet fully habituated to it.
It was similar with the tinkers, who however were more used to tools and work and group discipline, and adapted easier to the work; but being taught the hard way by the Sardies to leave other people's property alone and not to act bossy or make threats or slide back to scrap metal picking is far from painless; nor did many of them ever see Earth or Sun again, dispersed among different groups. Most of them ever preferred exploring to steady work in one place.
The five children were ordered to attend school in Ilmenost and learn things more useful than how to wander and steal and scavenge; they achieved well later. For the moment, suddenly `finding themselves inside a space thriller' was quite enough for them.
Even so Red Scorpion made a thankful deliverance when he called on his parents for the first time in many years. Meanwhile back on Earth his parents' local council still did little, so the local residents took the tinkers' scrap to a scrapyard, and hired a JCB and trenched and ridged the edge of the waste land to stop further such incursions. After a vain search for the disused factory's owners they demolished an outbuilding of it to get bricks which they used to brick up all remaining ground floor doors and windows of the rest of it. The local council complained at the unauthorized work but decided not to confront local opinion. His father thankfully reopened his workshop.
And few, not even he himself, knew that he was not who he seemed to be. Inside him Mr.Milford, asteroid metals brokerage Company director, was buried far deeper than Mr.Blore, London financier, ever was inside Plutey-pots the asteroid miner. A plastic surgeon, and other specialists, among the free spacemen had worked long and well to make him into a replacement for the original who men controlled by his Company and others had tracelessly disposed of.
"This is again those #%$ Sardies've done that." said someone in Ilmenost later about these events, "Every so often they send us that sort of stuff. Like that commune of hippies they 'jumped here a while back. That lot didn't settle down properly till four of them blew themselves up on a landmine bush down on Arda that time, when they marched off out of an exploration camp to set up on their own. Tramps and tinkers now!, and they didn't want to come either. I suppose Red Scorpion was entitled to `go over the top' about them, from what I heard. The Sardies can be a real efficient `pulping machine' when anyone gives them lip, and that lot looked like it when they unsuited here for a check-up. Those tinkers are quite a rough lot themselves, and some of the tramps had older wounds to show it. The Pallas-2's had quite a blow-out on what the people about [in Birmingham] gave them in thanks. I suppose we'll make some good of some of that lot they sent us.".
"One at least of the tramps is some use." another said, "He said he was a PhD in nuclear physics and he did electronics as a hobby. When he came out of university his parents had moved and didn't tell him where; he got excuses all round and ended up on the streets; that was four years ago. Of course I don't give a suit RD-ful of sewage for that sort of fairy tale [to try to arouse interest or sympathy] from a tramp begging; but Control Rod in the X-100's [a nuclear scientist] ran him through a very stiff test in both subjects and found to everyone's surprise that he'd told the truth after all; and other methods found also that he was telling the truth. Amazing what turns up sometimes. In a bad physical state, and an infected blowtorch burn that he got for defying the tinkers when they came. And four years of vagrancy to have to lose and get back to working regularly. When asked what codename he'd choose he chose Muon [a sort of atomic particle].
Usually you can't trust that sort of story. Another said he was all sorts of things in physics and astronomy, but when he was tested, in his exam answers he made up stuff at random like bad science fiction and trailed off to begging for loans and wild tales about how he'd pay them back, in atrocious spelling and grammar. He said he was 23, but an X-ray of his skull says he's about 40. He's soon back to unskilled [work] and noting that he's not to be let out of sight. If I was in charge of the matter I'd be minded to dump him and some others back on Earth where we got them from. If so, what sort of tale'd he tell, and who'd believe him?, about being abducted by `aliens' and returned - particularly if he was anaesthetized for the return and woke after we'd left him back on Earth. Would he think the whole thing was a dream or a drug trip? Or what? But for better or worse he's here, and if let to himself back on Earth he'd most likely go right back to wandering and making a nuisance of himself. He and most of the rest of that lot in the end called themselves by the sort of name they'd called themselves back on Earth: may or may not be their real names, but that's the names they're listed as here and that's what's on their suits.
I'd better get back to work. We seem to be doing nothing but make suits. First the Companies bully us over us making our own kit, then they pull out and leave our people there stranded. Spanner Sam said that he's never before had so many suit hyper jumpers come in for servicing, after the amount of jumping about the Sun's asteroid belt recently looking for odd ones and groups left stranded. Sardie 1 'jumped here yesterday with six that'd turned up at their base when they were about to pack up and leave thinking that all'd come in who were going to. All six suit radios kaput; only one of them's suit RD working and the rest had to take turns to siamese with him; only three propulsors working between them despite cannibalizing some to mend others, and they'd had to ditch their towed heavy kit. @#$ Company kit makers and their #%$ `built-in obsolescence' to make us keep buying replacement parts off them. They'd tried seven other Company bases and every one was deserted and the time and distance getting to the next base while yet more parts of their kit got to their built-in obsolescence dates and went wrong, sorrybut sorrybut current economic climate and all that. He said they're sick of patching up Company suits and replacing bad parts in them. At least what's left of the Companies are now selling everyone suits that last properly like ours do, that before they only let important people and special forces have. Gunpointed into it by public opinion, likely: too many tales'd got back to Earth. What will happen to the rest of that lot of `street sweepings', anyway? And to that lot of teenage punks that the Jetters brought in? `It takes all sorts to make a world', it is said. I better get back to work.".
Time passed, and the new willing and unwilling recruits seemed to be settling down. Then five of the ex-tinkers, plus two who had been in the ruling group of the `Faithful Brethren', met by a prearranged plan, gradually got hold of supplies and weapons, and at a chosen time took off. It was a week before they were missed, as the spacemen were a scattered people by the nature of the asteroids that they lived among. Muon also went missing at the same time, saying that he had been told there was news from his relatives on Earth; but the last time he was known of he was with the two ex-Brethren. Also in a room where they had met, was found a scrawled map and some coordinates and the word `Reactor'. Clearly they had chosen an important place to strike at to try to get power (in both senses) where they were or to try to get taken back to Earth and their familiar life, aided by such oddments of knowledge about matters nuclear that they had picked up before and after being taken into space. The place's name had meant nothing to them, except that it was in what some called 'X-100-ese' (the X-100's were fond of Tolkien and used his languages much when naming places that they discovered when exploring the Anor system).
They were an aggressive untidy-minded lot with merely average intelligence, and the two ex-Brethren had a painful time learning when and when not to suggest better plans and ideas. They had to be found, and the job fell to the Jetters. Luckily the way they had gone was clear, to Arda, for their spacesuits contained radio bugs just in case of such an attempt. For tracking on planet, by then compact chemicals detectors were as sensitive as any tracker dog's nose, and linked to a neurocomputer made a skilled operator even better than a dog at following trails. The Jetters hyper jumped to Arda: one jump only, for Jet Jack's hyper jumper was nearly out of allowed jumps before its next major overhaul after much jumping about the Solar System looking for spacemen left stranded by Company base closures. The rest of the search would have to be in the old slow sub-light way. They orbited and orbited, riskily low in the edge of the atmosphere to cover more ground faster. Once the gang were down and among hilly geography, and perhaps unsuited, they would be hard to find. The Jetters were about to give up when their suit radars picked up a pattern of echoes, of not quite the right sort and behaviour to be big flying animals or small dense flocks of birds, above the northeastern part of the main continent. Thus the gang were found, betrayed by such a total unfamiliarity with PL-prop landing that they took many hours on attempts at it and several times 'skyed' hundreds of miles up out of control; some of the gang had suit wings and some not. Some may claim that more commemoration is due to the gang's tough thug persistence with their alien kit in an alien place and circumstances - but not to what their deeds were in furtherance of.
The Jetters pursued them, high above rainforest which gradually turned to dry scrub, evolving ever sharper thorns to defend itself against ever harder mouthed grazing animals made hungry by the dry seasons, and then the hot emptiness and ever-marching dunes of the great inland desert that the X-100's had named Karnelitse, the Red Sand, where a few hardy animals lived on roots and seeds left by plants that grew quickly after the rare rainstorms, until they came to the high mountain range that shut out the rain-bearing east sea winds from it. As they passed over the snow-peaks, the radar echoes finally sank into the geography, but they were near enough to hear that there were five suit radio bugs, and to see that there were eight radar echoes. They turned towards where the echoes had gone down, in a tangle of forested valleys cut into mountains and a plateau area. They opened their suit wings and flew down and landed.
Birds flew about and sang, for flying animals of that general shape and habit had arisen on Arda as on Earth, including predatory species. They came to a tree where a pair of Black Hawks were nesting; the young were learning to hunt but still had to be fed. One of the parents suddenly flew down from the tree and sat on something on the ground; there was a brief squeal. Plutey-pots felt a moment of disgust at seeing beyond the light years the same miniature avian cruelty as on Earth. Hawks, arousing dislike when the victim is a songbird, stopping its song and orphaning a nest of young; admired when tackling a poisonous snake. He had seen the latter on television: the snake biting repeatedly at the hawk but getting only a mouthful of stiff feathers, until the hawk's beak breaks the snake's head. An hour later a young hawk at another nest that they passed did swoop into a bush and catch a snake, and he praised it for ridding the area of a poisonous lurking menace. The result shocked him. The snake was held too far back, and its head, slender with its mouth closed, pushed easily through the hawk's feathers. The hawk dropped the snake, fluttered desperately, and fell far to earth. The snake fell onto thin elastic twigs and got away. Jet Jack knew why Ardan snakes struck in this way, but Plutey-pots hadn't expected it. That difference was soon to mean more to them than just an early end to a hawk eyass which hadn't learned enough about snakes.
They took off and flew up above the valley side, and found the signal again. After five miles flight it led Cobra to an abandoned spacesuit marked 'Jacko'. He had clearly ditched every bit of it to be sure to lose any radio bug in it. As to why he had separated from the rest, it may have been a quarrel among such unruly people, or he may have been sent off for some reason. The Jetters flew in and down like a flock of birds.
"Oi! Back off, you ignorant space @$%'s!" Cobra shouted over his radio, "As I thought, no bushcraft, want to trample everywhere messing up the trail.". They stayed aloft and circled, a bit put out at his language. "Nor has he, typical low rough without the sense to keep the suit's powerpack and RD and food synthesizer at least. Does he expect to find people to rob and shops to spend the loot round every valley corner?" he thought, irritated at the delay. The soft ground vegetation damaged easily, and Jacko's trail was easy. Half a mile on they found him lying among pieces of a smashed bush.
"Bayonetted in the back. That lot and their dirty quarrels among themselves brought here." said Laser Larry, "I don't suppose we'll find which other one did it, when we find them, without doing things to them that I don't turn to unless I have to. Hang on. Marks there like something heavy's been dragged away.".
"Or has dragged itself away. All along there." said Rattler meaningfully.
Jet Jack knew what he meant. He felt a cold dread. Jacko's death was not a deed of man. The Great Night Serpent, Apophis nyctideimus, or some related species. A family of Ardan poisonous snakes that grow up to fifty feet long, and thick with it. On Earth nature limited the size of poisonous snakes by losing their best upper teeth by making the fang bones out of the main upper jaw tooth-carrying bones, harming their ability to swallow big prey. On Arda this was not so, and most snakes are poisonous, even the biggest. Its fang, bayonet-sized in such a big snake, is extruded forwards from the closed mouth. It can see infrared far better than an Earth pit viper can, and warm-blooded prey rarely goes unseen by it despite night or camouflage. It is itself highly camouflaged and can change colour. Its stomach can inject digestive fluid inside its contents, so digesting big prey much quicker. It is no wonder that one of the X-100's on their first exploration of Arda named it after Aapep, the great night serpent demon of ancient Egyptian belief.
He looked around. Ardan blood was spilt about: Jacko had clearly made good use of a knife or something before the serpent made an end of him, for the enzymes in the Ardan venom did not act properly on Earth flesh. Too late to save him, it had noticed the alien taste in his body fluids and left him.
For Jacko, that was the end of that, except to bag and hide the body and remember to bring it back to base. They looked for the rest of the gang.
There was a winding movement in bushes ahead of them. Plutey-pots with Laser Larry flew to look at it. The animal was not merely odd, but looked horrible to him, as do many things that have familiar-looking parts in a grossly wrong arrangement. It was a sort of big snake where with evolution the process that grows legs had not faded away but along much of the body had multiplied, causing a body form like a monstrous centipede but with each pair of legs like a big lizard's. It had its place in life: on slippery ground it could move easier than by slithering, and could grip better when climbing tree trunks and vertical rocks. They left it and followed the trail.
Night came, but not dark. A huge comet trailed nearly all the way across the sky, reflecting Anor's light like many Earth full moons together. Few stars shone visibly through its glare. Streamers of gas and dust made intricate sky patterns over the alien landscape. Two smaller but still big comets escorted it. Meteors lit the sky like tracer bullets in a night battle. Even so the gang was opposed now by a heavenly snake, for it was the time of Altaloke, the Great Serpent or Great Dragon, as the X-100's had named this comet. Some had theorized that many of the Sun's visible comets and meteor showers are the remains of a supergiant comet that got into the inner solar system a few thousand years ago; in Anor's system it was still there. Likely it had circled for ages far out as an ice asteroid like the Sun's Pluto or Chiron, until in its orbit's slow random changes one of the gas giant planets sent it into the inner planets in a long slow ellipse until a near encounter with Earendil sent it into a fast near orbit where Anor's heat started its surface evaporating. Over the millenia Altaloke would break up and the parts scatter and fade, but now it was whole and in its full early glory, and lit up the land. Under its alien white light they flew or walked, following the trail, which led down, down, off the plateau, into a steep-sided valley that Plutey-pots and some others knew and had little desire to see again.
The trees changed as they descended into the valley of the warm stream. The forest was lush, but on the river's banks little grew except a tough deformed scrub. Big blousy dayglo orange flowers of pluteweed (Seaborgia spp.) dotted the banks and trailed up the bushes. In a patch of mud they saw clear footprints of men with no footwear over spacesuit undersuits. They opened their suit wings and took off again, the easiest way to move in that sort of country, and flew up the river. It and its valley and the trail stopped at the foot of a high cliff.
Of the fate of the gang there was little doubt. Their plan, copied with all lessons taken against failing from all too many armed takeovers and holdings at gunpoint and thuggery all too well depicted in TV and films, a line of activity that came much easier than steady hard work to that sort of character, had aborted totally. They had found a nuclear reactor indeed, but no hostages to hold, no stored food or clothes or vehicles to take, no operators to order to do their will, no ready stores of used fuel to make radioactive dirt weapons, no guards' weapons to take and use to get more weapons, no associated factories to get kit made and set up a power base for their aggressive ideas and to try to attract like-minded people to fight for them - nothing. For they had come to Nunarien, `The Place of Secret Fire', a reactor made by no man but by ground water slowly leaching uranium out of the plateau and concentrating it behind the cliff edge until it went critical. There they had come. They had no food or camping supplies. They had jettisoned their unfamiliar spacesuits for lightness and radio silence to avoid pursuit. They had no skill to evade pursuit in open space. They knew little of space kit except a primaeval fear of hidden tracker-aiding radio bugs. They had reverted inappropriately unintelligently beyond the light years to the Earth itinerant's refuge, to lie quiet while yet another angry retaliatory search by settled people ran its course and ceased.
Their spacesuits were found on the plateau edge above the buried reactor core, where with such instruments as they knew how to handle they had made one more futile search for a way in to its supposed underground control rooms. But there were none, and they had no way to compel at gunpoint the ever-seeping ground water which is the only operating personnel that Nunarien ever has, as it flows through the reactor core and becomes the feared warm Nunorduin river. They were fated, for in their ignorance they had washed in it and drunk of it. They had read that there was a reactor there, but not what sort of reactor it was, and had guessed that enquiring about any more for information would call unwanted attention to themselves. The two ex-Brethren had been in the Anor system for some time and should have known what Nunarien was, but they did not, as for religious reasons they had systematically avoided reading anything `worldly-wise scientific or technological contradicting holy writ'; they had gone with the gang hoping to become their advisors and successors, relying far too much on religious stories about sinners turning to good. As the reactor was isolated on Arda and apparently little guarded, but likely important and well equipped since it was so big, it seemed an easier option to the gang than trying something at Ilmenost seen by many eyes and radars. Some of them had recently learned bits about reactors, but not enough. They had got there, and their instruments said there was a reactor there - but not what sort to their lack of skill, and so they died far from home.
And Muon? His suit was with the rest, but where was he?, tricked and then forced to go with the gang when they found to their surprise that he was indeed a nuclear science graduate as he had said, to help run the reactor, and likely now sharing their fate. They turned away sadly, loaded up the abandoned suits, and took off.
As they rose, another winged shape flew up out of the forested rocky valley side. His chest bore the name of one of the gang, and he had no helmet, but when he pulled his hood off he was Muon. His story was plain enough. He had outwitted them in a patch of dense regrowth jungle on the plateau edge where a storm wind funneled up the Nunorduin valley ten years before had blown big old trees down. He made good use of desperation and a mud patch to push one of his captors down. He ran off, evaded pursuit and got away in a chase as they cursed him for a "crafty treacherous official-minded @#$ with tramp added to it, next time I'll teach you properly that someone who says he'll obey me keeps obeying me"; the gangd threatened reprisals until Muon reached the spacesuits, grabbed one, and hugged it in his arms and legs as he flew away on its propulsor just in time, a desperate feat that the gang dared not imitate. He came down in rocky forest on the valley edge and hastily suited up. His head at least was not so full of neutrons and alpha particles and isotopes and suchlike that some good old native cunning could not find room. Of course he had already known knew what Nunarien was, but he had kept that to himself while he was with them.
Muon unsuited and put his own suit on, then he and the Jetters searched the area a while longer; on the fifth day a smell and a swarm of insects led them to all that there was any need to know. Deep below them the inaccessible reactor core still ran as it had for thousands of years. Nearby on a rock surface were scratched the gang's last threats against the reactor's supposed human operators who the gang to the last had believed to be underground there, and against their former settled neighbours in Birmingham on Earth who had suddenly proved to have quite literally `friends in high places'. The Jetters tethered everyone, bagged or crated everything, flew up away from the place, and returned to Ilmenost. Muon returned to his work, and to having to learn much new, for he had learned nuclear science on Earth and knew well enough about uranium and what can be done with it but little of the nuclear technology of the Anor system's readily available natural plutonium-244 and curium-247; he and Control Rod (X-100's) each had plenty to teach the other.
The rest of the ex-tinkers gradually heard what happened, and accepted their new situation. The ex-tramps likewise had to get used to steady work and obeying laws, and most of them did not like it. They were lucky that the spacemen had taken them, because, as Red Scorpion heard from his father when visiting home again later while in the Solar System to deliver Anor system actinides and spacesuit parts (and at last could go again into his father's workshop where he had started his lifelong skill in electronics):
"A bit after you lot came before, two more tramps came and started to doss there, then three more, and started to take things and so on as before. We ordered them off a few times, but they merely came back; the police made the usual excuses about not having powers. Then someone important visited nearby; that plus a local election coming up prodded the Council into a bout of cleaning-up. So a #@$ great Corporation cleanup truck with a #@$ big RD onboard came here. It had a great long pickup arm with a grab on its end and a conveyor with a strong elastic cover running up it. It reached right in to the back of the doss hole and cleaned all the rubbish and everything right out. Its insides were soundproofed so I couldn't hear much of what it did inside itself. I've heard tales of - it's enough to say they're none too careful what they pick up, and since it came those tramps haven't been seen anywhere, and no more've come here: nothing that goes into one of those things comes out again. That was before we bricked the place up properly so they can't get in there again. Then the firm that owned the site turned up at last and sent us stuffy solicitors' letters protesting, but it was too late, we'd already done the job for them.".
"That news is also a reminder to us not to push things too hard when we go
casually down to places, in case they act against us, like local cops in a few
places keep a jet fighter like the one that got the Quadrantids." said one of
the Pallas-2's who were with him, "The Jetters grabbing that teenage gang was
quite enough of that sort of thing for a while. Like this warning to sport
divers to leave stuff alone, that inshore fishermen in America and England have
been publishing as a strip cartoon and as TV live action and on posters when I
was on Earth last. (I scuba dived before I went into space):-
* `This is Scooby-Doo going down [CB-ese for `stopping transmitting'].' said a sport scuba diver who had come from a town inland, over his car's CB radio as he left it to go into the water, not thinking that the local men also had CB.
* `This is Scooby-Doo going down.' he said to himself as he went down a long steep path down a cliff to the sea, thinking that he was safely far away from and out of sight of the fishing village who had got weary of shellfish poachers.
* `This is Scooby-Doo going down.' he said as he swam down to the seabed looking for shellfish to take.
* `This is Scooby-Doo going down.' the fishing village's type DSG3 RD-equipped submersible grab-dredger thought as it stopped him with a powerful ultrasound beam blast and swallowed him.".
"I know." said another, "There's a sort of synthetic haemoglobin stuff now. A tankful of it holds or releases a lot of oxygen according to what electric current's run through it, much less energy used than compressing the oxygen into cylinders: it makes designing submersible craft much easier. Several firms are making RD-equipped submersible patrol and dredging craft now: navies and all sorts are buying them. It was odd how many inshore fishing and small naval and patrol harbours were buying DSG3's: now we know why. The makers thought they'd want bigger ones like the DSG5 for a lot of heavy dredging - if dredging's the only thing they're used for. The DSG3's smaller and can get into places better without being seen. And the DSS's, like the DSS5, instead of a grab arm it's got a whacking great aimable suction tube that can suddenly untelescope at you from beyond what the underwater visibility limit ever is in cold sea water, up to 40 feet long, `fshwoofp' that's you gone. That sort of craft's [sentient] computer brains soon get a rough waterfront-type mentality like the men they work with. A lot of places get grants to buy dredgersubs to recover metals from the seabed, same as many places are RD'ing through old rubbish tips on land, since the Earth's metal mines won't last forever. They're fine for that and at underwater work, and so pay for their own upkeep, and they're handy self-refuelling out-of-sight patrollers, so a lot of places have them that can't afford a specialized patroller. Some people still think we [= sport scuba divers] take all the shellfish and wreck pickings we see, and suchlike, they moan about us doing such things as `more and more of us coming cluttering the place and spending next to no money there but bringing our own everything'.
They're bringing in an incredible amount of metals that men've lost in the sea down the centuries. Sea archaeologists don't like them: a big one can consume an ancient wreck in a week and all that's left is a hole and a dump pile with ground-up pottery in. Some parts of the Med[iterranean] have been wiped clean of marine archaeology by twenty years of dredgersubs, far worse than divers taking antiquities ever did. They can be @#$ hard for surface patrols to detect. They soon get artful at hiding from sonar among rocks and differences in the water and in holes that they dig. They can stay at sea for months and can service each other. When Greece finally got around to digging the sea battle site at Salamis, that was where the Greeks beat the Persians that time, they found nothing but a mass of holes and trenches, and a hole and an RD waste heap where every single wreck had been. Wreck wood and any other organic matter they pick up becomes fuel and plenty of it; RD'ed metals can be sold at sea to any ship captain who's got hard currency and doesn't ask questions.
You can never tell with that sort of craft. Commercial D'subs usually aren't interested in other divers, unless they steal things round work sites, or find something that its firm doesn't want others to know about; and often they carry their firm's divers about, outside or inside themselves. But if it belongs to some inshore shellfish fishing village that doesn't like sport divers, or if it's naval and you're near something secret, it's as that cartoon says. RD D'subs with fishing boat type codes on and usually a mentality accordingly, are bad news and we keep well clear of them unless we know and trust the place very well. You might think the nearest one's miles away and they're not very fast; but local people watch out and listen and pass info on, and the D'sub soon learns the usual places and times like any other inshore fisherman does. While some bunch that turns up in cars from inland is taking an hour messing about before they finally get in the sea or in their inflatable and away, some local man or autodetector's passed the info on and the D'sub's heard the modulated-ultrasound message and left its routine work and gone 3 or 4 miles towards the `trouble'.
Otherwise, ask for permission first, and permission from that sort of area's harbourmaster's @#$ hard to get, and never mind landsmen's law saying we can dive anywhere, particularly if the local cop's from a fishing family. Don't try a mass demonstration `dive-in' at such a place: they've been known to cordon the area off and send everything and everybody in out of sight underwater and 100% tracelessly clean up.
There's those hull-mounted lethally powerful long-range underwater ultrasound guns they and their surface craft have often got, allegedly to use on seals and sharks that damage nets and for signalling. And they can be used handheld overside from small boats. It's @#$ lucky they weren't developed in the 1939-'45 war so in the 1950's a lot of inshore fishermen'd get them handily in time to stop in its tracks the 1960's mass sport scuba diver invasion of inshore shellfishing sea and some divers at the time did loot shellfish quite badly.
FSPB's were meant as capturers only, and for rescue and as diver-tenders and recovering sunk stuff and the like, but people soon started to put RD's in them. The makers didn't like the idea, but had to put up with it. There's a 15-foot mini FSPB that can be carried like a lifeboat, all too effective, and a torpedo-shaped variety that can go and return via a standard torpedo tube.
It doesn't always happen, and not at every place; and even at one of the places where it does happen you may dive 20 times and meet nothing, but the next time something scoops up the lot of you, and nobody ashore sees anything. Hardly ever anything provable, but where that sort of fancy submersible goes in, unlimited sport diving often goes out. They can see you with sonar long before you see them. DSG's and the like take time to get there, so using a subskimmer or just being quickly in and out often used to get away with it; but the FSPB rushes in at powerboat speed before you can finish your dive, and ducks under and opens its bow doors and scoops up whatever's there. Into their dredgings tanks go inflatable boats, subskimmers, diver-riding torpedoes, anything they think's after shellfish or whatever for fun in work sea areas, and same time next day not a trace left except what it keeps for the local men to use. Same as they would with enemy frogmen in wartime. They can operate a long way away from base. Mighty powerful onboard crusher/breaker D'subs and many FSPB's have got, as well as a heavy-duty RD. Some areas are safe, some aren't. If they don't want outsiders diving or boating there, don't try it, whatever diving club solicitors may say the law says in theory. A group of sport divers fails to return, the law suspects but finds nothing that'll prove in court, as long as the local men keep fishing and recovering metals in the sea, and one more small cove turns from a tourist spot into a hard public-excluded work and patrol base. The same sort of thing'd have happened to a lot of us out here if it wasn't for our hyperspace jumpers, I reckon. One sport diving centre even got its own FSPB to defend its customers, and had far less trouble after that.
Subskimmers [a hard-hulled inflatable with auxiliary electric motors, that can transform to a submerged diver-rider and back] used to be incredibly expensive, but they got cheap later. Sport divers use them a lot, so do work divers.
There's a Kevlar 6-inch mesh diver-catcher trawl that someone with nothing better to do designed, @#% thin tough stuff that packs into a small space onboard and can be stored and towed easily by all sorts of small and medium craft, not just trawlers, sensors on it and it can be `flown' about like a kite round underwater obstructions, designed to be as invisible as possible underwater. Quite a bit handier than ordinary fishing trawls that navies have been known to use to get unidentified divers out.
The place's own men in diving gear, toughened by their work, can clean us up in a few minutes and not gently if they find you underwater on their patch. Safety helmets, hard round breathing masks, Kevlar-reinforced drysuits and all, nothing vulnerable. There've been cases of limpet mining even. The more outsiders try to crowd in, the harder the local people get with outsiders. Now they can dive, they don't need us to dive to recover lost gear etc for them, and there's more they can get their living from and more for them to keep us and all other outsiders away from, by force if necessary. At least with those you may be brought back to land and get let away, often minus your gear - perhaps, for there have been rumours of firing squads. One time a fishing village DSG3 picked up six of its village's men in their frogmen's gear with guns and regurgitated them on board a foreign fishing boat that it found in its village's sea area: another way to catch poachers.
If there's not too many people watching many of that sort of place's men are efficient in riotsquad kit on the surface or ashore. And the inevitable violent retaliations against fishermen's boats and gear and organization premises and the like where there that sort of thing's happened, until there's a patched-up peace that lasts till someone breaks it. Some say governments let things get like that to build up a stock of hard seamen skilled in small boat and onshore and frogman and antifrogman tactics for any future war. The landsmen's courts and police keep on getting unable or unwilling to do anything about it. There was a time when inshore fishermen and many other rough manual workers got very scarce as their children had to stay at paperwork landsmen's schools till they were nearly old enough to vote and that made them unfit for anything but paperwork jobs and that's why there's so many businessmen and officials about, instead of them following their fathers; but that's slackened off now.
It's better where it's hot enough for coral to cover the bottom. RD'ing coral and coral sand for organic matter for energy isn't worth it and the people there earn a lot more taking divers out than shellfishing or fishing. Or anywhere if a local man'll be paid to take divers out; but he takes you only where he wants to let you go, and he watches to see you don't bring up anything you shouldn't. Or if they can't fish because the area's polluted or fished out or a conservation zone or marine national park, or if the shellfish they catch have been undercut by artificial rearing. Once lobster-potters riotsquad-raided a tent camp of sport divers at night and found they were all cops, from a police station diving club. Sometimes the proper law does crack down on local areas that take the law into their own hands. At least down there there's too many people watching for some big hard Company to try to control everything like we get. Then sport divers get a lot less trouble. Work diving firms and diving biology expeditions have had to pay a lot for weapons and guard craft to defend their dive sites in hostile areas. `Inner space', outer space, disputes and trouble over access to both, as people along the coast are another local population that can now fight back effectively at their work area being crowded in on by yet more general public wanting leisure room.
There's a library of business papers here that got here from Earth one way and another; it's always best to keep track of what the Companies are up to. Someone I know saw in one of them that that director Mr.Milford's lucky, wherever and however he disappeared to that time: he was going to scuba dive in Maine (USA) after that meeting, and the diving party that he was going to go with vanished all together and no bodies. They dived from a fishing village near Kennebunkport that day, and the people there say it was tide currents: but the dive leader knew about currents, and Kennebunkport had got an FSPB that year, and it was patrolling round there just then. `What a way to go it'd've been,' the paper said, or fancier words to that effect, `he's got honours in classics at Eton and all sorts.', and the paper quoted something from Virgil: how did it go: at least Latin's something to learn on long trips [across empty space, to occupy the time]: `piscibus atram / improbus ingluviem ranisque loquacibus explet' [Georgics III 420-421], etc about a sort of dangerous snake that lived then in Calabria in south Italy, and he wrote somewhere else that Greece was even worse for snakes.".
"Yes, all too relevant a quotation: `it greedily fills its black stomach with fish and croaking frogs'. I know Latin also. As the world gets more crowded, there isn't as much room for each person to move without getting in the way, not even for sport scuba divers. Lucky we're out here in space then." said another, "Inner space [= the undersea world], outer space. Reminds me of that talk of a fancy sort of automated asteroid mining spacecraft taking over from human miners, that some Company's designed. I don't want them here, or else we better make some of our own first in case, everything vanishing down their intakes, at least what they dig won't be taken away if they're our own.".
Meanwhile in Red Scorpion's mind mention of Eton and the unexpected classical quotation aroused an image of life at Eton College. It was not the distorted Eton of many of his dreams where the pupils wore a variety of motorcyclist-type clothes and their main sport was raiding nearby suburbs and countryside wearing helirigs and jetpacks, and suchlike, mixed sometimes with various sorts of space kit, and some by road on motorcycles. It was the proper real Eton of quiet learning and order and study, and him there as a pupil. A remote image as if it had fought hard to get through on a bad and heavily jammed radio link. It became clearer, and other images seemed to be nearly through to consciousness. Then a query from Long Tom what he thought of FSPB's etc distracted him, and Eton was gone. The image never reappeared. "Me at Eton? Silly idea. Agh, all sorts of daft things turn up in dreams. Like all those schools, nothing but paperwork learning and no wonder people don't want manual jobs any more and can't understand what it's like for workmen." he said roughly to himself at the whole matter in his strong Birmingham accent, and that was that. Even so, once only and briefly, Mr.Milford stirred and strained at his bonds in the deep places of Red Scorpion's brain, then fell quiet forever. Of course Red Scorpion knew what Eton really is like, as much as most people know from the public media; but he rarely needed or wanted to think about the place.
They continued to drill into the carbonaceous chondrite parts of the asteroid that they were working on, for factories in Ilmenost needed the carbon to make polymers etc; then Red Scorpion and some others backed out and slept weightless in their spacesuits as they had countless times before. He was back in Eton indeed - his dreaming mind's usual version of it, of leather jackets and helmets and personal flying gear and roughness, and the sharing out of loot after raids. He woke, yawned, looked at Altaloke trailing across the sky, and Arda as a bright dot only just visible through its tail. He reflected that the real Eton also lived off the people about; it lives off its pupils' fathers' `private incomes' which are often got from other men's work by various means that in the Anor system would have been sat on hard at once. He thought briefly that "All those scary jangled dreams about that place. My dreams never seem to run out of silly tales about that #@&%$ stuck-up place. They say that dreams run on the silliest ideas they find around the brain, with the long term rememberer running in reverse to try to get rid of silliness and leave the sensible stuff there. Some neurocomputers have to do the same sort of thing. @#% `old school ties' putting each other into the top jobs in business and government. Since I got back to my people after that business with that place Fletchmin-1's loader, what on earth's set me dreaming all this much of Eton in any form, anyway? Not even as if I've ever been there in reality, except one day as a tripper once.". He thought about other matters for a while, and went back to mining until the next query arose needing him to attend to matters electronic.
"That whacking great comet about: some say it's a pity that good bright comets are so scarce on [= as seen from] Earth." Red Scorpion said a while later.
"They were commoner once." said the one who had quoted Latin before, "Someone called Aratos wrote a poem about astronomy in the third century BC, and in it is [Phainomena, lines 1092-1093]: `And don't let one or two or more comets come, for many comets mean a year of drought.'. Comets don't make droughts, of course, but two or three obvious comets in the same year as routinely as bad weather!".
"Unless they saw all those comets only 'cos the sky was clear at night a lot more often than usual 'cos it wasn't raining in the wet season when it should have. How do you live on Arda, or anywhere else you can breathe the air, if you can't eat the local food?" someone new among them asked, "Go about in spacesuits for their food synthesizers all the time?".
"Not necessarily." said Long Tom, "If I keep my spacesuit, I've got it with me and I don't have to go back for it to get back into space, and it isn't as likely to get stolen or damaged if the area isn't to be trusted. If there's plenty of water about all that's needed is a powerpack and a suit RD and a suit food synthesizer: the RD must be kept fed with any biological or other matter that contains the right chemical elements. Or generate power from wind or running water or whatever, if there's a group of you. If water's short, as in deserts, you need an all-over suit to catch the water your body loses, which means that to be active when it's hot you must keep cool some way other than letting sweat evaporate away.".
"You mean `stillsuits' like in those fiction stories called `Dune' that Frank Herbert wrote, back around the 1970's? One of us has got a CD-ROM of them.".
"In a way. In the story they were cooled by a built-in refrigeration system like in fridges, powered by the wearer's legs when he walked, and no powerpack: OK till he stops walking! So it can't have had a food synthesizer, else it plus the man wearing it'd be a perpetual motion machine. In the story they traded local produce for off-planet food most of the time. Metabolizing food when living that way creates so much water that the people who used those suits in the stories needn't have been so paranoid about bits of water!, treating two liters of it as a fortune. Real suits like that need a better RD system than in the stories, to recover water from bodily waste. But they exist - with a spacesuit powerpack, or a big battery which must be recharged every day. We don't need to wear them for months on end: if we're travelling distances on planet it's easier to wear a full spacesuit with propulsor and wings, and fly. Oh, and in some hot deserts on Arda there is a big sand snake, and the man that discovered it named it `Psammopython shaihulud' out of the `Dune' stories: but it breeds in ordinary snake fashion, live-bearing like some snakes do; and it doesn't secrete a funny drug. It does catch prey sometimes by going under the sand to it.".
They went back to work, and life went on. In the weightless emptiness and far distances, every so often some of them felt a yearning to return to the life mode of his species's origin, to go about in the open not enclosed and burdened by a spacesuit, to feel the wind on their faces, to run and swim; but routine trips to Arda satisfied most of this without the officialdoms and the risks to kit sometimes met on Earth. Desire for what some call `fleshpots', i.e. the sorts of pleasures usually found in big Earth cities, are a different matte. They were discouraged, as going there usually involved leaving spacesuits in storage of doubtful safety or honesty, and more than once a group of spacemen had to land and rescue another, and a disreputable Earth official or night club owner had a painful time from laser or electric shock to make him cough up spacesuits that he had taken on an excuse; one time, after that stage, another session was needed to make him return propulsors and powerpacks that he had taken from two of the suits for no better purpose than to fly in at upstairs windows to steal or `enforce'. But the need for a relief from spacesuits and space was realized. A side effect was a need, satisfied quickly, to breed and genetically engineer Ardan soil bacteria and fungi so they could break down the Earth-type biological waste that inevitably got into the soil round human areas.
A steady extra consumption of spacesuit breathing system parts and rubber at factories in Ilmenost was finally traced to a group of new scuba diving centres on a coral reef part of the west coast of the main continent on Arda. There was debate as to the need or desirability of tying up production capacity to make that much frogmen's kit when men could explore and work under shallow water adequately in their spacesuits plus weights to oppose buoyancy. Some harder space-minded men said "I know we need some relief from space and spacesuits, but this goes too far tying up factory time making leisure kit. All the suit-off I was brought up to need is a few days in a base's `heavy room' [which rotates to make imitation gravity by centrifugal force], never mind wearing out men's propulsors and hyper jumpers going to Arda for fun, and now playing at frogmen. Seize the whole lot and sling it in the RD 'cept what's needed for work and what can be turned back into spacesuit parts.", or the like, but calmer advice won.
The men running the diving centres were told that they could carry on but in future their diving gear should be made in Aulien or elsewhere on Arda and not drain scarce space carbon sources making rubber and breathing set absorbent etc to use on planet, and best not to use up lead or other heavy metals as diving weights but to make ballast bags that divers can fill with sand or stones before diving. So some carried on scuba diving in seas never to be troubled by inshore or any other work fishermen claiming possession or sole use of areas, for Ardan life is highly poisonous to Earth life and vice versa. No man netted inland water or the sea, save for biology specimens; nor would anything but native animals ever eat the abundant flesh of the many large plentiful sorts of shellfish. It was upsetting to some who had liked to eat from the sea on Earth, and after a day's diving on Arda had to fill themselves with food synthesizer output, and slept to dream of freshly caught swordfish steak or the like grilled over a wood fire. Inevitably some don't listen; luckily cooked Ardan meat or fish smells like teargas from one of its native oxygen-carrying biochemicals broken up by the heat.
Bright fish of many types swam by in shoals, and were not troubled by Man, except in self defence when something big threatened in defence of territory. Only in a few places where empty desert came to sea were men later to catch sea life in bulk for lack of vegetation to RD for energy and elements to input to their food synthesizers.
A large hard-shelled torpedo-shaped animal with four fins front and four rear waterjetted about the open sea singly or in packs scooping up fish and shellfish by opening its front end into four doors and untelescoping itself to make room inside for its prey. Its rotational four-fold symmetry (occasionally three or five) made it look very alien or artificial. Its kin, not ordinary fish, gave rise to Ardan land vertebrates; the four-symmetry appears in their embryos for a while. Two front and two rear fins become the legs; the other four occasionally persist as abnormal extra legs, and in some eight-legged tree-climbing animals evolution has made this normal, and in some of those they have become wings.
So some spacemen dived during `suit-off' stays on Arda, sometimes for work if only for biology and underwater geology and the like, weightless in the deep among the varied alien sea life.
Also on Arda to be kept going was, unavoidably, a rehabilitation centre for people who became spacesuit dependent or weightlessness dependent. It happened sometimes: some lost the routine of cooking or getting meals, or going to a toilet, or tolerating weather variations, for their spacesuits for years had catered for these needs as for the need for shelter and warmth. A few even set their spacesuits to permanent autoventilate causing disuse of the body's natural breathing muscles, although any good group leader looks out for and stops this. Disuse of chewing was well known due to much living on suit food synthesizers' liquid output; rather than a sucking tube inside their breathing masks some of the spacemen liked a stomach tube, which they found more convenient despite the risk of becoming also unpracticed in swallowing. So inevitably problems arose, and were solved with varying amounts of difficulty and work. This rehabilitation centre was more than the asteroid metals trading Companies had ever built: all too often in former times such people returning to Earth had to struggle alone or became a burden on ordinary medical or psychiatric hospitals.
These facilities had to be supported, and the population of the Anor system was still not large. Known geology of Arda was still very gappy, and metal ore deposits turned up by a variety of chances. One big deposit of actinides on Arda was only discovered when, several months after a school class visit to Arda, at a school nativity play in atmosphere in Ilmenost a mineralogist in the audience noticed that the jewels in King Herod's crown included several large crystals of a cherry-coloured plutonium silicate mineral called seaborgite. He asked where and how they had found them: the children hadn't known what the stones were.
"We were on Arda for biology." the teacher said, "They caught the children's eyes among coarse gravel washed out of a wave-eroded lakeshore. Whenever they're on planet they fill their suit outside packs with junk. It was here:-" he said, and showed the place in an atlas of photographs taken from space, "By these mountains called Ered Kalashnikov. That's one of those X-100 names: not one I'd have chosen. Still, it's on the maps and accepted. I've enough to do without querying place names: in religion class the same aggro's turned up again about `should we follow the Earth year or the Arda year for religious yearly days?'. (We can't use the Ilmenost year for that: it's several Earth years long, out here in Anor's asteroid belt.) On top of a harmless nativity play setting men off about plutonium and where a few red stones came from. And when I teach them about how people live on Earth several of them once reproduced `the farmer took his milk to town in churns' as `he took it to Chernobyl' or similar: vain hope to expect them to know old ways of doing things when nearly every book about Earth's set in these days of tanker lorries and nuclear reactors. That place Chernobyl's too much idly spoken of. Anyway, who needs Chernobyl when we've got Nunarien!? And talking about plutonium, I see that him with the oxy tanks made out of it [= Plutey-pots] 's with you, bringing them in here. How safe are those red stones, anyway?".
"Reasonably, as long as they don't lick them or get chemicals on them." the mineralogist said, "The plute won't dissolve out of them easily, and it's all isotope 244, the natural sort, not the hot sorts like 239 they make in reactors. Why men fresh up from Earth treat it like dragons is they've got none natural and most of theirs is 239. But I heard once that one of the men who first made Pu-239, used to carry a lump of several grams of it about in a matchbox in his pocket [he actually did! (Author)], and he suffered no ill effects from it.".
It fell to the Jetters and Muon to follow up the trail, as they were due to go there for other reasons including another search for `Apollos' (asteroids whose orbits crossed Arda's) and `Atens' (asteroids orbiting inside Arda's orbit).
"If it isn't some odd little bit not worth mining, or they'd been carried from far away in some big animal's gut to help grind its food up." Cobra growled.
They set off. The teacher could not spare the time to go with them, so they had to rely on his photographs of the place. Rattler calculated a trajectory to intercept Arda. They endured a long hard several-G propulsor burn and settled to yet another long journey across emptiness with nothing of note except a distant sighting of a cluster of three asteroids trojan-ahead to Karnil (= in the same orbit and 60 degrees ahead). Arda gradually grew from a bright dot to a blue and white semicircle and then to a world ahead of them. They ran their propulsors and fitted their suit wings and settled into a retrograde inclined close orbit waiting until their destination was below them in daylight.
On their sixth orbit they entered the day hemisphere on the sunset line (for they were orbiting the other way from Arda's rotation) soon after starting the long crossing of Arda's ocean, which is much bigger than Earth's Pacific and fills more than a whole hemisphere. Beneath them sea continued endlessly, with scattered small islands, and a line of larger islands where long slow flowings of the rock under Arda's crust had swept such oddments together: thus many times repeated in ancient times the continent had gradually formed. Most called that sea merely "the ocean", for the geologists' name `Panthalassa', and the X-100s' name `Belegaer' taken from their pervasive Tolkien theme, did not take popular root there. Once they passed nearly above a huge whirlpool of deep cloud, a hurricane. Far below them 130-knot winds whipped up tormented waves and foam which few Earth surface ships could have withstood, and destroyed forests on any island they hit; but the Jetters passed irrelevantly high above it all in space vacuum, each in his own complete living system in his spacesuit.
Anor shone white from behind them on high snowy peaks as they approached the southeast coast of the main continent. To their left the Har-Lossered (`South Snow Mountains', another X-100 name) rose behind a narrow coastal plain; the big river Eridanus detoured southwards round them to reach the sea. Ahead was their goal, and as they flew above the long line of mountains the reason for the strange mixed-language name `Ered Kalashnikov' was clear and unremarkable: with hundreds of ground features to name during their survey orbits the X-100's had, as sometimes, quickly named the range after its shape as seen from space rather than to commemorate anything or anyone. It was a temporary name which was copied and became standard usage before they could find time to think of another name; but yet the name seemed foreboding.
It was straight and parallel to the coast but some way inland. The south end continued high and narrow and suddenly ended. The north end fanned out into a dissected plateau which finally ended square. The side branch which helped to cause the name started at a right angle and gradually bent southwards until it ended at the sea in spectacular cliffs. Where it left the main range several glaciers crept down the granite bulk of Threehorn Mountain, Nelderasse in the language that the X-100's had used. Two of the glaciers ran down westwards and melted into rivers which flowed into a lake among hills on the edge of the plain beyond. They propulsored out of orbit and flew down over the cold snowy peaks and mountain tundra and forest-choked valleys. Jet Jack identified the place from the teacher's photographs. They landed on the lakeshore and unhooded and were thankful to breathe open atmosphere for once. Swarms of biting insects were hatching from marshes around the lake, but refused their alien smell and did not bite their exposed heads. A large animal roared at them in the lakeside woods.
As the teacher had said, there were a few pieces of seaborgite and other heavy metal minerals scattered along the lake beach, and another piece nearby in a blast crater where someone before them had detonated a landmine bush by laser fire from cover to make the area safe for the school party. Search upstream among the trees clinging to steep rocky valley sides showed no actinide minerals and none of the well-known indicator plant pluteweed. They were about to call it off when Laser Larry pointed out an alignment of valleys to the south as if an old valley draining northwards had been diverted by rivers running westwards and broken by more uplift of the mountains.
They followed it, and found in the mountain sides and hill crags strata that told him of past times there. 23 million years ago a wide coastal plain with indefinite drainage caught an unusually heavy jet of a supernova fallout deposit well known in the rock strata of that side of Arda. Minerals including newly made actinides washed down streams and collected in one part of the plain. Then two small pieces of continent that had been drifting about at a centimetre a year on the long slow flowings of rocks beneath the crust, ran into each other and the continent, crumpling and breaking and altering and pushing up coastal rocks and reef coral and sediment that had been tipped off the continent edge. As the mountains and their side branch slowly rose along the collision lines the plain was distorted and partly obliterated, and its drainage now goes round the north of the mountains. Time passed and new rivers slowly cut their beds down. Man came to Arda and named places, and found the supernova fallout far sooner after element synthesis than ever was with Earth matter.
First found was a thick layer of uraninite, a uranium ore, but thankfully not yet re-concentrated enough by ground water for any of it to go critical, for its uranium was about 20% U-235; it also contained a lot of U-236, whose half-life is 23.42 million years. Of thorium there was less than on Earth, for much of Earth's thorium-232 had once been U-236 and Pu-244, and on Arda much of it still was.
Next was a layer of a lanthanide ore called yttria - reasonably useful - and after a barren interval and some lens-shaped bodies of platinum metals ore their remote analysers showed something that made Muon's hair stand on end, for his nuclear science was still rather Earth-minded.
"Ye gods." he said weakly, "After all Control Rod and the rest have told me I still don't quite believe it, that I'd ever be looking at natural curium ore! All isotope 247, my analyser says, half life 16 million years - oh yes, that supernova, I'll accept it. Mostly sesquioxide, some carbonate. I know, I know, you lot call the oxide `curia' or `curite'. Even some neptunium-237 in it. A fair bit of bismuth - that'll be what 99.9% of the original nep'-237's decayed to by now. What use is bismuth anyway?, except as stomach ulcer medicine. I suppose we'll use what's left of the nep' like U-236 as reactor shielding to turn it into plute-238 to put in suit powerpacks. Some lanthanides in it. Back on Earth I was used to curium only in grams, that's been made in nuclear labs. Lucky it's not pure enough for the ore body to go critical as it is. A lot of decay products (U-235; and a bit of plute-239: odd finding that natural). Control Rod told me he's seen the remains of two old burnt-out natural curium reactors before, one in the Karnelitse desert and one about 100 miles SW of Nunarien, both so old that what was left of the curium had all gone to U-235. He said there's been other supernova fallouts before the one that made this lot. If you want to know how Cm-247 decays, it goes Pu-243, Am-243, Np-239, Pu-239, U-235, and so on. It chain fissions, and what doesn't fission can be made into californium-249, which chain fissions and has plenty of steady heat to put in suit powerpacks, for goodness sake talking casually of californium by the kilo, I'm used to thinking of it by the milligram. They'd think I was mad if I reported this bit of geology back on Earth.".
So he said, and they logged the place, and moved on, until they found the Red Cliff. There in the thickest part of a deposit that filled a small ancient lake they found the source of the school's stones. The varicoloured cliff towered above them, seaborgite, plutonite (impure dioxide), a plutonium oxysulphate mineral called tarpanite after Tarpan in the Typhoons who had found some of it elsewhere, and other compounds of it. He stared with a shock of unreality at natural plutonium in such magnificence, when all his upbringing had taught him that it is never so found at all but has to be made from uranium. He shivered briefly at the idea of being casually so near to so much of it, but that was safe, for it was isotope 244 whose half life is 81 million years, and not the isotope 239 of his university studies and familiar handling precautions. Its radioactive decay had inevitably made a quantity of thorium mixed with it.
"Looks like enough to give all Ilmenost spacesuit oxy tanks like mine." said Plutey-pots drily.
"No thankyou." said several of them.
"What happens to it?" someone asked.
"If we mine it, we usually breed it up to Cm-245, which will chain fission, and it's just about hot enough steadily to put in spacesuit powerpacks." Muon said, "If it's left long enough like it was in the Solar System it goes U-240, Np-240, Pu-240, U-236, thorium-232, whose half life is 14.1 billion years so it lasts, and it can be bred up to U-233, which will chain fission.
Here if something's making surplus neutrons, we put U-238 or Pu-244 to catch them and have it turned into Pu-239 or Cm-245 [respectively] for free. Or some other element that a neutron [per atom]'ll turn into a useful suit powerpack radioactive. I once heard Control Rod say irritatedly that `anyone who doesn't do that but lets a lot of neutrons fall straight onto lead, someone should make the lead into bullets to firing-squad him with: around here we don't waste power or heat or neutrons or anything else useful.'. I suppose that's his XYY showing itself for once. OK, I know that neutronified lead finally `goes upstairs' via bismuth to polonium-210, but polonium-210's half life's only 138 days. It's very hot, alpha and next to no gamma, and it has its uses, but its heat doesn't last. To make it, it's cheaper [in neutrons] to start with bismuth or all lead-208.
People straight up from Earth sometimes think we've got all sorts of ray guns like in stories. I wish we had a electric-powered neutron beam gun. Handily lethal like neutron bomb effect, I suppose, but what I'd want it for'd be (if it was reasonably efficient in energy use) to irradiate particular elements to make them radioactive to put in spacesuit powerpacks, and build fission product atom nuclei back into actinides like happens in supernovas, so we could turn solar panel electricity into stored nuclear power same as we can turn electricity into stored chemical battery power. Using electricity to run a particle accelerator chucking stuff at beryllium is nowhere near efficient enough and it fissions beryllium to helium which we can't turn back into beryllium. If you heat iron or nickel, or likely most other things, up to 5,000,000,000 degrees it comes apart into helium and neutrons, but the only place that happens easily efficiently is by gravity compression inside a supernova; and then you've got to make the bits go the way you want them and no other way. Likewise squeezing matter so hard that its electrons go into its nuclei to make all neutrons. Some people daydream about `the star in a backpack', that's a hydrogen fusion reactor that runs on ordinary hydrogen and nothing else, which we haven't got yet, and to run it adequately fast it'd have to heat up to at least 40,000,000 degrees; `the supernova in a building' is several steps beyond that even, if anywhere at all.
Making actinides this way isn't a matter of each atom getting a neutron every few days, a quiet Sunday stroll up the `valley of stability' until you get to bismuth, and there stop; the beam's got to be so intense that each atom gets so many neutrons a second that it goes far from beta-stability and blasts right past the barricade around radon and reaches the actinides. There's some real right #$% unstable elements around radon to get past, and francium the worst. Trouble is, around there's a patch of isotopes where the proton count and the neutron count are both special complete shell patterns plus a few extras, and the atom doesn't want the extras. It starts at polonium-212, that's complete shells plus an alpha, and the alpha half life suddenly drops right down to microseconds. At bismuth each atom'd have to catch at least about a neutron a second for it to hit polonium high enough to beta decay on and not alpha decay back down. Past that it'd gradually get easier. No point letting it get further than atomic weight 260 or so. Forget trying to make superheavies, that's element 114 isotope 298 and thereabouts: I suspect that if you did make a nucleus weight 298, as it beta decayed towards element 114, it'd hit a patch where it'd have so many protons that it'd fission spontaneously far faster than it'd beta decay and would never get near enough to the superheavies for their special complete neutron and proton patterns to stop the fissioning in time.
Back on Earth, we'd say that X happening is as likely as getting a job in a plutonium mine. Now we're standing under a cliff of the stuff. Once back home at a lecture that a TV company was broadcasting live, the lecturer drew a map with element symbols on it to say where this and that was mined. He was called away. Someone in the audience sneaked up and wrote `Pu' on the map among the symbols in one place. When the lecturer got there in his lecture, he read out from the symbols while thinking about something else: `and here they mine lead, arsenic, manganese, tin, plutonium, OOPS!!'. His face went every colour that plute compounds are in all its different valencies. So did the TV director's. That's how that lecturer got the nickname `Pluto'. There was a several-megaton row afterwards. But I haven't yet heard of an oops mine, even here. But apart from jokes, what to do with this lot? Riches and weapons, or the means of making them, attract undesirables, same as the natives around Kimberley in South Africa were soon shoved aside when a lot of diamonds turned up on their land. And apart from right here, we'll have to trace what's been eroded away already and become placer deposits downstream everywhere rivers have run from here. Whoever wrote that line in an asteroid miner's song `But what the devil for / is plute-244?' hadn't heard enough about breeder reactors.".
Thus Muon said, in a spacesuit far from home at the foot of the high cliff of unearthly minerals, and wondered briefly what matters were like at home, wherever `home' was. When he came out of university and still had no job promised, he went home to find his parents gone without leaving a forwarding address with anyone (for he had failed their hopes of him abandoning school to bring a second pay packet into the house as soon as possible), and so he had ended up down and out until the most improbable form of rescue came from beyond the stars. By now he had been fed back to good health and weight, with much topping up of his suit's RD-input tank to make up for what his body used in growth instead of returned to the recycling system; but he carried the tinker's oxyacetylene torch burn scar as long as he lived. There was no need for Man's justice for it, for far to the north Nunarien had passed and carried out its sentence on the culprit some time before. He had no sympathy with the mentality of the tramps that he had had to live with, and he spoke of them no more.
They recorded the area as well as they could with their instruments, and then left the place, up and eastwards into the gathering dark. A lingering sheen on a mountain showed where the remains of a coral reef paradise had been turned to hard white marble by melting under pressure as the mountains rose. Would the free spacemen's `paradise' be changed also by pressure and heat of men's desire to possess such resources and the influence and power they can get from them?, whether the enemy came from among themselves or from outside.
"This place and planet should be well guarded." said Plutey-pots as they flew, "`Ered Kalashnikov': I thought that name boded trouble! So that Kalashnikov is loaded indeed! That lot could power and arm a huge space navy for us, or for some other force who may take over, or for internecine warring parties; or it could give power to our small useful machines a bit at a time for a very long time ahead. All that lot together makes me uneasy. A bit here and a bit there would have been much harder for one power to grab the lot. If we keep quiet about it, how likely is someone else to find the place and chatter about it? The scenery around there attracts people often enough, and it will more often as the population here grows. Likely to guard this lot we'll have to make a lot more space navy than our few PSC-4's that get used largely for ferrying and building site work. I don't want to get caught up in all that arms race and security. A lot of us went to space to get away from that sort of thing. We'll just have to see what comes of it. How far have we got in finding other stars with planet systems and asteroids that we can bolt off to in a hurry if we're invaded? And in putting together emergency evacuation packages of machines and supplies and information to help us start again where we end up?".
Other men came to other parts of Arda, seeking other things. So far everyone thought of themselves as spacemen, and kept a propulsor spacesuit and practice in flying in it; but how long before some people effectively stop being spacemen and start being ground-dwelling Ardans? How long before a few camps and local presences cohere into a terrestrial society like Earth's? To that the total biochemical alienness of the Ardan biological system is one great opponent.
A big group of out-of-work American and English shipbuilders went to space for work and got to Ilmenost. Fairly quickly they wearied of emptiness and sky above and below them. On Arda they happened to find iron ore and a power source near cool sea, let their spacesuits gather dust, and they went back to their old trade. They lived off the output of a big food synthesizer that they brought down with them, as this was easier for busy factory men than trying to grow food or to gather food in the woods. Thus they never had experience of Ardan living matter, even as many on Earth never learn either from another or by experience that the familiar garden laburnum or oleander is highly poisonous. It might be thought that someone would have told them, there or in space, in words that men without scientific knowledge could understand, that it can't be eaten by men; but everybody assumed automatically that someone else would have before or would later. They built small sea craft for anyone who needed one, and then ventured much on a bigger craft built `on spec' - a 80-foot inshore trawler which went right through to being fully equipped, and named after one of Arda's sky's bright navigational stars, and sailed by some of its builders testing it and being trained by one of them who had sailed in such craft on Earth's sea, and brought to port and unloaded of its first load of caught fish, before anyone thought to tell them explicitly enough about biochemical incompatibility between different planets' life forms; and as Anor climbed and grew hot the smell that started was not that of an Earth fishing port.
Why did they go so far? Of those who could have told them, some thought there was an unknown but good reason, and went about their own business; others didn't recognize what that sort of craft was. Or did someone talk in disastrous joke about looking forward to a good dinner of local fish, and, not feeling humorous at the time, and being workmen not scientists, they took it as serious? Anyway, the trawler was built, and when its drydock was flooded and opened it floated on Arda's ocean even as many like it had set forth on Earth's seas. They sailed and worked it, stayed at their work through high seas and cold driven spray as hardily as any of their kind on Earth had, filled their hold with fish well iced from the onboard icemaker to preserve it, and returned weary but triumphant to port, unloaded, and set up placards to say that they had good fresh fish for sale as a change from synthesizer output. Then at last someone got around to telling them about Ardan biochemistry.
Then its crew in their tough sea waterproofs and helmets with polycarbonate anti-spray visors, both proudly displaying the name of their boat which they expected to be the first of a fleet and the port's emblem which they hoped would be borne by many generations of men, felt an alienness and a sadness at a hardy traditional life mode that would never take root there, as out of place as Ardan pluteweed trying to grow on Earth. A biologist bought a few of each species caught and moaned about the big fish having been gutted; he got a curt answer when he asked to see the sea-bottom rubbish and the trash, for they had already RD'ed it as they went: that is all.
A man in a spacesuit undersuit came onboard to look round, and noticed things. "I see you've fitted it out as a survey and work boat also." he said, "Water shaft for divers to go and return in rough sea or unseen; a torpedo tube, I suppose for one of those torpedo-shaped work and recovery and capture craft.".
"A lot of fishermen back home wanted them like that, or old boats refitted like that. They dive for shellfish between fish runs, and do some salvaging." said its current acting skipper.
"And for other purposes. Back home, some inshore fishermen in diving gear are all too efficient sea-commandos. And there's those lethally powerful underwater ultrasound guns fore and aft. There are rumours about those things.".
"All we know is that customers wanted them often back on Earth, so we fitted them now. We @#$ needed them here: some @#% great sea-dinosaur thing stuck its @#$% long neck in the net like it was its %$@ feed bag, so we zapped it. Not the only thing we'd @#% shoot with it, if we could: we do all that work making this boat, then we're told that everything on this @#$ planet's poisonous and not even fit for rendering for @#% animal feed fishmeal. I can't run this boat and its crew on the price of a few crummy biology specimens each trip.".
"Trawls are getting quite fancy now, I see, those lines down the warps to pull the otter boards about to `fly' them about like kites round underwater obstacles and to close its mouth; and sensors on them.".
"Yes, it saves a fortune in nets when working near wrecks and rocks, that's often where the best fish are. You sound like you've been a long time out of touch with modern fishing. Never mind wasting our time #@% chattering. Here's a shovel, help us get that @#% lot that we worked in seas that came onboard every @#% wave to catch and sort and clean, shovelled into the sea and get rid of it. All that work for @#% nothing.".
He looked about for a bit longer, then went out and onto land. A breeze laden with the scent of the Ardan temperate coastal forests blew the fish smell away. He felt shocked, for he had seen something that he thought was safely beyond the light years. He knew other purposes for that kit, for he had been a sport scuba diver back on Earth, and he knew all too well some inshore fishermen's attitudes and tactics. Underwater ultrasound guns, hand-held or hull-mounted, intended for defending nets against seals and sharks, also had a long record as an all too common and efficient and silent surface boatman's weapon against unwelcome submerged divers, and the other special facilities could be used that way also, and now he was seeing the same on Arda where he had restarted his scuba diving. Perhaps they were not the hostile type and what they had said was true. He left.
Its builders could not bear to scrap it, or see it rust, or hack it about to convert it, after their labours in building and then working it, so they manned it once more, inappropriately in their spacesuits and with a spare Ilmenostian ship hyper jumper and spaceship powerpack in its hold, in their dry-dock. They tethered themselves inboard. Distortion and greyness hid it as it set off on its next and unreturning voyage. The sky of the Solar System appeared. In spacesuits millions of miles from any land or water, propeller and rudder and sonar useless in the airless void below its keel, they made show of handling its fishing gear, but it was only surface joking to try to put on an air of toughness and hide a deep grief. They jumped to Earth orbit. Ground radar saw them, but could do nothing before they jumped again, and the sea washed about angrily as the hyper field pushed it away and then it flowed back to fill the space vacuum that had been jumped in. The trawler at last settled afloat on a sea whose fish had the same biochemistry as its crew and their customers. They started its propeller motor and sailed it to where its new skipper as arranged met them in a small motorboat. He paid them in gold, for free spacemen are no trusters of Earth paper money and bank accounts, except a few hard currencies like US dollars; he recognized their asteroid miners' remote metal analysers and lasers and was thankful that he had brought genuine gold. He put the motorboat in tow of it and sailed with them to port, feeling a bit alien at riding in a familiar-looking craft which had yet been made in the light of a different sun from Earth's.
In port they unfastened the hyper jumper and spaceship powerpack and had them unloaded, describing them as cargo, and put the gold with them. A customs officer arrived to raise queries, but as he approached they hyper jumped back to their home beyond the Pleiades leaving him with nothing to charge duty on except a hole where the hyper jump field had skinned turf and loose soil away. In the meantime the trawler's new skipper sailed it away and collected his crew. It had a long useful life fishing, by netting or by its crew diving, and it routinely outran or surprised groups of unauthorized surface or underwater wreck pickers or shellfish poachers and brought them back captive as its onboard RD consumed such of their gear as its crew had no use for; but it never returned to its port of launching. In port or at sea it looks much like others of its kind and as functional without concession to attractiveness, and it is is registered at a port on Earth - and except for a few small maker's nameplates there is nothing about it to show that it once sailed space and had been built beyond the stars.
Perhaps if passing geological ages bring Ardan native life to sentience, such
craft may routinely sail the seas that that craft sailed once, and their crew
gain a reputation for toughness and hardiness and defending their livelihood and
bringing much good food to land; but not now.